The late B.B. King, christened “King of the Blues” by the world, played plenty of celebrated halls and clubs in his long lifetime – Carnegie Hall, Chicago’s legendary Regal Theater and the White House among them.
On Feb. 16, 1990, the legendary blues musician, befitted in a classic pinstriped suit, tie and suspenders, played to a humbler, perhaps, but no less reverent crowd in the University of St. Thomas’ O’Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium.
King was the crowning event of the university’s “Multicultural Month,” which corresponded with nationwide Black History Month.
Dr. Chris Kachian, a professor in the Music Department, remembers the evening as “absolutely magical.”
Kachian, who contacted King’s manager to bring him to St. Thomas, said many of his current students have never heard of B.B. King, and those who have are vaguely familiar with him as a black guitarist. But in 1990, students knew very well who King was. Three years previously he had been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1988 he collaborated with the Irish band U2 on their hit song “When Loves Comes to Town,” from their album Rattle and Hum. He would win his sixth Grammy days after performing at St. Thomas, and won 15 total before his death.
“We asked him to present on the history of the blues, since we’re an academic institution, so we thought that was important. But we thought, ‘Hopefully he’ll bring his guitar,'” Kachian said. “It would have cost us a lot more to book him for a concert.”
To the sold-out crowd’s great fortune, King did more than just bring a guitar, all of which he famously called Lucille, he brought his entire band. Together they kicked off the night with two songs and performed again after he delivered his “presentation.”
“All he did was tell stories,” Kachian recalled fondly. “As far as a progressional history of the blues, he tried to follow that history line, but he mostly just told stories! It was truly exceptional and wonderful.”
According to an article in The Aquin published shortly after King’s show, “King’s voice filled every inch of the small auditorium.” It also noted that “King said he is able to maintain the strength of his voice because he sings from the stomach, a skill he developed from singing in church before the age of microphones.”
For a lucky few – including the students from the All College Council, which sponsored the event – the evening spilled into the Fireside Room in Murray-Herrick Campus Center after the performance in OEC. Though he was not obligated to do anything beyond the 75-minute event, King, sans band, settled into one of the leather couches and told more stories and casually answered questions for about an hour.
“He was so generous with his time,” Kachian said, adding that the musician was so authentic and open and “filled with love” that he appeared “Yoda-like.”
“It was like sitting with a kind grandpa,” he said. “He really loved being around the college students and was smiling like a Cheshire cat because everyone in the room loved the blues.”
King, the son of Mississippi sharecroppers, was 64 when he performed at St. Thomas and had been averaging between 200 and 300 live shows per year since his first hit single, “Three O’Clock Blues,” in 1952. He continued that pace into his 70s, continuing to perform live until several months before his death in 2015 at 89.