Friday, May 15, 2015

B.B. King - King of Kentucky Avenue

B. B. King RIP  

"The Trill is Gone." 

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B. B. King - the Beale Street Blues Boy - came to Atlantic City often, usually twice a year in the pre-casino era to play one of the Kentucky Avenue nightclubs - the Club Harlem, where I saw him for the first time in the early '70s or the down the street at the Wonder Gardens, which he later was part owner of, neither of which are standing today. 

B. B. King at the Atlantic City Pop Festival 
 I almost caught B.B. King at the Atlantic City Pop Festival in August 1969, two weeks before Woodstock, but I had to work the weekend at Mack & Manco's Pizza on the Ocean City boardwalk, but when it rained Sunday afternoon, I got off early and went over there and caught Little Richard singing, "Good Golly Miss Molly," and fling a fur coat into the crowd. So it wasn't until a few years later when I got to see B. B. King for the first time.

I remember distinctly when Billy Muller, a good guitarist in his own right, who played in the Backroads band at Brownies, say that "B.B.'s in town, and he took me to Atlantic City to see  him. We parked on Atlantic Avenue and when we walked around the corner onto Kentucky Avenue in its hey day I was blown away by the sights, smells and sounds.

 There were people walking in the street, the smell of food hit your senses and music filled the air, coming out of a half dozen jive joints - Billy Daniel's organ sounds came from Grace's Little Belmont and Chris Columbo's drums pounded away at the Club Harlem, where you could see Chris thorough the open doors.

"Come on in," he'd say, waving his drum sticks as a violin player in a tux played on. 

We went in all right, and Billy introduced me to Chris and his band and we had a beer with them before going into the main back room, where Billy slipped a twenty dollar bill into the hands of host who led us directly to two seats next to the stage. 

The band was already tuning up and they played a few songs before B.B. came out and picked up his guitar and began playing the blues like you'd never heard before.

They say you have to live the blues to play the blues and B.B. must have lived a great life - and often told the story of how his guitar Lucille got its name. "We was playing a little roadhouse club down south that had a lit stove for heat, and while we was on a break a fight broke out and the stove was knocked over a fire started to engulf the whole place and we all got out, except for my guitar, so without thinking I ran back in and grabbed the guitar off the stage and made it safely out again. When I found out that the fight was over a lady named Lucille, that's what I called my guitar." 

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B.B. King played Kentucky Avenue twice a year, once for a two week run in the spring and then again for another week at the end of the summer, usually the last week of August, and Billy Mueller would insist on going to see him for the first and last nights he was there, and the last night was always the best as he would play late into the evening and the other musicians from the clubs up and down the street would come in and they would jam for hours and the crowd went crazy.

I made a few friends - Chris Columbo became a good friend for thirty years until he passed away a few days after his 100th birthday. I visited him in the nursing home on his birthday and he had shriveled up and curled up in a fetal position and I almost didn't recognize him but when he woke up his eyes lit up and he remembered me - "the writer," he called me. Then he said, "Strange Fruit" - the Billy Holiday song and the closed his eyes and fell asleep. He died a few days later. I would have never met Chris if it wasn't for Billy Mueller and B.B. King and thank them both.

Besides Billy and me, there weren't many white folks around - a few in the audience, and only two on stage - George Mesterhazy played piano with the big boys, and I got to know George really well - and visited him often when he moved to Cape May to play the Merion Inn. George survived a fire there one Christmas but then passed away a year later, much to the dismay of his many fans.

Then there was Dan Fogel, who would sit in and jam on the organ at the Harlem once in awhile and at Grace's Little Belmont, where he'd play Billy Daniel's B3 that was permanently set up behind the bar.

There were always other great headliners at the Club Harlem and Wonder Gardens, but B. B. King was the King of Kentucky Avenue where he ruled for as long as street was the musical hub of Atlantic City, which was until the casinos came in. While the Kentucky Avenue club owners supported the casino legislation, they didn't know that once the casinos got up and running they didn't want their customers to stray away, and they also took all the big name acts that used to play Kentucky Avenue and paid them more.

B.B. continued to play the Wonder Gardens and Club Harlem after casinos came in but eventually, the casinos put them out of business. There's a scene in movie Atlantic City where Burt Lancaster visits the Club Harlem and it kinda captures the art deco interior and style of the place in its last days.

I caught B.B. open for the Rolling Stones from the eight row on the floor of the Spectrum in the mid-1970s, but the last time I saw B.B. was at a casino, when he invited me and a few other people backstage after the show and just talked about his life and the changes Atlantic City was going through, and how  he missed the old Kentucky Avenue.

Now, if you go to Atlantic City and park on Atlantic Avenue and turn the corner on Kentucky Avenue all  you see is a parking lot and there's no more smell of the food or the sounds of the music. It's all gone, and so is B. B. - the Beale Street Blues Boy.

Beale Street is in Memphis, Tennessee and besides being the home of Elvis, there's a night club there called B.B. King's Blues Bar, a lasting legacy to a great and humble       man.

George Mesterhazy
Bill Kelly, James Cotton and Billy Mueller  - Thanks Billy - for turning me on to B.B. King and Kentucky Avenue and introducing me to Chris Columbo, George Mesterhazy, Dan Fogel, James Cotton and Hubert Sumlin.

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Kentucky Avenue in its last days during the day.

Burt Lancaster walking down Kentucky Avenue in Louis Malle's 1981 movie "Atlantic City" 

Trailer for the movie:

Kentucky Avenue Facebook Page

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Image result for Kentucky Avenue Atlantic City today

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