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A long way from Pepticon 

"You really don't want to hear me sing it a capella," says B.B. King.

            Of course, he's wrong. Who wouldn't relish the opportunity to hear B.B. King sing to them over the telephone?

            "Here's the way it went," he says, before singing a laidback rendition of "Pepticon sure is good / Pepticon sure is good / You can get it anywhere / in your neighborhood."

            At 78, King's voice is deep and rich, but more frail in conversation than the mighty boom he still possesses onstage. He speaks with the leisurely resignation of a man filled with grandfatherly wisdom. Pepticon is the name of an old health tonic for which King once wrote a jingle.

            The year was 1948, and Riley B. King had recently migrated from rural Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. King, still green with inexperience and somewhat timid, had just landed a chance gig at the 16th Street Grill in nearby West Memphis, Arkansas. The owner, Miss Annie, told him she'd award him with a steady engagement if he could get on the radio and advertise her club.

            Determined and filled with newfound courage, King decided to try his luck at WDIA, the country's first station to hire black DJs. With his acoustic guitar clutched to his chest to protect it from water, he hiked across Memphis in the pouring rain, entered the control room, tapped on the glass window, and said "I'd like to make a record."

            The rest, as they say, is history. Soon thereafter, King became a DJ at the station himself, was tagged with the nickname "B.B.," short for "blues boy," and his career began in earnest. The Pepticon story is but one gem in a total life experience positively brimming with stories.

            With steady, unbelievable resolve, B.B. King has toured -- almost literally -- non-stop for the past 50 years. At the end of King's autobiography, Blues All Around Me (1996), co-author David Ritz suggests the possibility that King is the most traveled performer in modern history. Henry Rollins, himself no stranger to relentless travel, puts it this way: "So many times I've been [traveling], and there's this damn poster with B.B. King's name on it. That motherfucker, man, never stops. Good for him."

            As is documented in his book with stark, almost shocking openness, King's career path has been fraught with hardship and isolation. The father of 15 children (the second-oldest of whom recently passed away), King has a work ethic that has imposed obvious limitations on his relationships with them.

            "I never stayed home with them like I should have," he admits solemnly, but then says "I've never felt guilty about it, in a way. I wanted so much for my kids and my family to have things that I didn't have. And the only way I could find was doin' what I'm doin'."

            These days, King employs one son and grandson as his road manager and personal valet. Other children and grandchildren, he says "wanna hang with me. I'm starting to feel again like I'm a whole man. They're filling up a lot of those empty spaces." Being a provider is no longer his main motivation, but remains an important consideration.

            "I'm happy to tell you that I don't have to do it now," he says. "I'm not rich, [but] today I do it because I love doing it. I have the best band I've ever had. Some of them are not able to do as I do. They have kids [too], some in school, college. And I love the band so much and I wouldn't wanna go fishing every day, so I don't wanna retire."

B.B. King plays on Tuesday, April 27, at the Auditorium Theatre, 875 East Main Street, at 7:30 p.m. $40-$45 through 222-5000.

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