B.B.King’s Blues Club of Times Square Keeps Stomping
The beat goes on. It’s been over a year since the passing of blues legend B.B. King but his legacy of live music lives on the stage that bears his name at B.B. King’s nightclub and Lucille’s Bar & Grill in New York City’s Times Square. The club continues to keep the music alive with renowned performers such as the Yardbirds, Al Di Meola, and an endless list of names from the annals of contemporary music. There are also reggae artists that are featured occasionally at B.B.’s. For instance, Jamaican dancehall deejay Yellowman is playing there this month and this past Saturday B.B.’s was having a reggae event. The thrill isn’t gone; I passed by the club and there was a line down the block for the club’s weekend revue, “A Decade of Soul- Classic Soul & Motown” that features Prentiss McNeil of the Drifters which has four performances per week, two on Saturday and two on Sunday.
Located in New York City’s Times Square, to be found amidst dining establishments, two palatial performance spaces are tucked away on the lower level under the club’s marquee. From its street level lobby you ascend a flight of stairs that lead you to a ticket booth. On the right is the main stage, on the left is Lucille’s Bar and grill. Lucille, as many of us know, was the name King gave to his Gibson ES-355 electric guitar. Lucille’s offers a fine menu of barbecue and Southern Style cuisine.They even have a house brew which is served to you from a tap that is designed to look like a saxophone, and a very convincing piece of industrial design at that. It was a good brew, filling with a taste that was not exotic. The night was there I had came to see “Bluesology, a Study in Live Blues!” presented by vocalist Cosmic Ray & his Cosmic Blues Band. The lineup featured Halley Devestern, Tangiers Blues Band and Bette Stuy (Bette Stuy’s name is a pun on the once bad-ass neighborhood in Brooklyn, Bed Sty). Debra Devi was also on the bill . The blues tradition was kept a live as there were versions of T. Bone Walker’s “Call it Stormy Monday” and other old favorites that were rendered with soul that evening at B.B.s. Parts of the show rocked with a heavy Texas blues flavor and a lot of was slick and sultry blues the way King of the Blues delivered it.
Q: “What are the biggest nights at BB King’s?”
A: “We usually have a handful of big shows per month, whether it’s George Clinton & P. Funk for Mardi Gras or Halloween, or hip hop stars like DMX, Lupe Fiasco, Joe Budden or Rakim. These are all big sellers, so are the old-school rock shows we regularly bring in. These include bands like Blue Oyster Cult, America, The Yardbirds and Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. We also cater to various genre audiences: R&B/soul (Vivian Green, Chante Moore), reggae (Bunny Wailer, Morgan Heritage), comedy (Dick Gregory, Paul Mooney, Ralphie May), jazz/fusion (Al Di Meola) and internationally flavored music (Sergio Mendes, Johnny Clegg).
Our house bands are very popular and include those who play our two regular weekend brunches—the Harlem Gospel Choir plays while guests enjoy Southern buffet food at the Sunday Gospel Brunch, and the Beatles tribute group Strawberry Field plays our weekly Saturday Beatles Brunch. Every Tuesday night in Lucille’s we have the B.B. King Blues Club All-Stars featuring The Harlem Blues Project, specializing in “soulful New York blues with a twist.” Every Monday night New York Blues Hall of Fame inductee Jon Paris leads a blues jam at Lucille’s”.
Most of Americans are familiar with King, the elegant attire, the pathos of his voice, his smoothness and warmth. And of course, the feeling he put into each of his deliberately placed riffs. We all knew King had class. He brought many people together in the activity of live improvisation and had long standing affiliations on collaborative recordings with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Bobby Bland and others. It is recognized that King was a proponent of taking the blues off the street corner and bringing it to concert halls. He won a Grammy for Best Male R&B vocalist in 1971 for “The Thrill is Gone” and in 1980 was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and in 2004 he was awarded a Polar Music Prize for his work in the advancement of music.
King was one of the 20th century’s biggest supporters of live music. From Berclair, Mississippi he grew up like many musicians in the South, participating in live church music. King’s first guitar teacher was a local preacher at Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kilmichael where King sung in the choir. Music as a live experience was part of life for a large part of the communities in the South at that time because in southern churches live music was integral part of church services, which were social epicenters. King was particularly drawn to the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ because of its music.
The original B.B. King’s Blues Club opened in 1991 in Memphis. The New York City location, opened its doors in 20000. When I asked if B.B. King’s Blues club was a franchise, this was the interesting response I received:
“No, actually—the Times Square venue has no relation to the other B.B. King’s venues. It is a separate institution, affiliated instead with the Highline Ballroom, Blue Note Jazz Club and Subrosa in New York City, and the Howard Theater in Washington, DC. It isn’t uncommon for acts to come through and play Howard in DC and then either B.B.s or Highline in NYC.”
The Times Square location has a seminal position in musical history. As a side note, The Apprentice T.V. series even did a shoot in the club once Less than a half hour away from Harlem on public transportation. the richness of jazz, gospel and soul from Harlem is a main ingredient to the club’s magic. In 2006, a live Yardbirds album, featuring Jeff Beck was recorded at B.B. Kings in NYC. The Yardbirds, as most guitar heads over 40 can tell you, was an innovative British blues band that had a succession of leaders that are arguably each largely influential on rock guitar playing, namely Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Clapton was a pioneer in the extended jam, Beck a pioneer in guitar effects and instrumental fusion. Page, we all know from Led Zeppelin added his genius in showmanship, production, composition and improvisation as well.
Q: “Is there anything that BB King’s would like to let the public know about?”
“We have a full service restaurant open for lunch and dinner every day, and we are always busy with shows in two rooms on a daily basis that cater to a very wide range of genres (R&B, funk, soul, hard rock, classic, metal, blues, jam, jazz, reggae, comedy, burlesque), and that we strive to reach both tourists and locals”.
Q: “ What are the goals for BB King’s in the future?”
A : “Our goal is to continue to be known as a destination, both in NYC and beyond, that provides quality entertainment, food & service to all of our guests.”
If you love the Blues and are in New York, it is ok to splurge once and while and go to B.B. King’s and Lucille’s Bar & Grill. But keep in mind, the club is upscale and pricey. I want to check out their chicken and waffles one of these days.