The thrill is not gone, according to B.B. King, even though his ability to walk more than a few feet is. Years of diabetes and arthritis, and just plain years, have taken their toll.
“I can’t run like I used to,” the blues legend says. “I can’t do everything like I did then.”
King, 84, is holding court, like a blues Yoda, for friends and associates in a posh villa at The Mirage. In plain sight is the scooter he uses to get around.
“But I was born with roving eyes,” King continues, a smile reshaping his surprisingly unlined face, “and I can still look!“
Three hours after this interview, King will roll his scooter up the red (actually, blue this night) carpet to the grand opening of B.B. King’s Blues Club, also at The Mirage. He’ll walk from the scooter to a seat onstage, where a jam with some of his many famous fans (including Robert Cray, Buddy Guy and Lee Ritenour) will commence. (Willie Nelson also will make a separate appearance.)
The blues club is the sixth King has opened since 1991.
“I see everybody’s name in the Las Vegas Review-Journal but mine,” says King, a part-time valley resident. “I think my CEO thought it was time we did something about that.” (King owns most of his clubs in partnership with a Memphis, Tenn.-based restaurant company that runs them.)
The blues’ most recognizable living emissary, King — born Riley B. King in Itta Bena, Miss. — is known for his expressive fretboard vibrato and exuberance on and off stage. Ranked third in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of 100 greatest all-time guitarists, King was worshipped by rock’s first British wave. (In 1969, the Rolling Stones employed him as an opening act and John Lennon name-checked him on the “Let It Be” track “Dig It.”)
King’s biggest hit came with “The Thrill is Gone,” also in 1969 — although fans of more recent pop music associate him with “When Love Comes to Town,” the 1988 single he co-wrote and sang with U2.
“A lot of doors was opened up for blues players like myself when the Rolling Stones came over, when U2 came over, and many of the British groups,” King says. “All of that today reminds me what the blues were, what they is, and what I think it will be.”
It has been reported that B.B. King and Lucille, the Gibson six-string he made famous, have shared the stage at least 15,000 times together since 1949. (The next time will be at the Star of the Desert Arena in Primm on Saturday.)
“I’m about the oldest thing that’s left out here,” King says, although he boasts that his playing doesn’t give it away.
“I think I’m better with that as I grow older,” he says. “I’m not as fast as some of my young sons, like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, and I could just go on and name a lot of them.
“But you learn as you grow older.”
Unlike the house supposedly full of blues just up the Strip, dance, metal, hip-hop and comedy will have no place at B.B.’s — just blues, R&B, soul, Motown or Stax, courtesy of a 12-piece band assembled by King’s longtime drummer and musical director, Tony Coleman.
“You’ll be able to hear live music nightly,” King says. “And we can jam if we want. It ain’t like a few of the places that we know around here, where they have a certain time when they cut this off and bring something else in.”
There may be some ticketed events — and, if a personal friend of the legend’s drops by, the rules could bend to include rock or country — but King promises that average nights will echo only with the riffs he rode to prominence.
“It’s about the blues,” he says, hinting that guest spots are possible from up-and-coming purists such as Joe Bonamassa, with whom King recorded a track a day earlier at Digital Insight Studios on Maryland Parkway.
“I see and hear a lot of the white people today playing blues, and I love them,” King says.
King is rumored to be playing his club again in February and, because he resides here for much of the year, says he may scooter up to the stage now and then unannounced.
“I’m just hoping they’ll let me,” he jokes. “I’ll have to speak to the CEO.”
Contact reporter Corey Levitan at email@example.com or 702-383-0456.Preview
Who: B.B. King
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Star of the Desert Arena, Primm
Tickets: $43.95, $60.45 (800-745-3000)