JOE BONAMASSA REMEMBERS OPENING FOR B.B KING IN 1989 THE GUITARIST RECALLS SUPPORTING THE KING OF BLUES AT JUST TWELVE YEARS OLD
This picture was taken the first time I met BB King, backstage at the Rochester Lilac Festival in upstate New York, where I’m from. I was booked as BB’s opening act. It was the biggest crowd I’d ever played for up to that point – there were 4,000 to 5,000 people in the tent.
I was 12. I had my own band, billed as Smokin’ Joe Bonamassa, and I was doing reasonably well in clubs in places like Buffalo and Scranton, PA, playing on weekends; my mother wouldn’t let me play on weekdays because I had school. Then I was asked, do you want to open for BB King? Of course I want to open for BB King! Live at the Regal is my favourite album of all time; The Thrill Is Gone is my desert island song.
I started playing the guitar at four. My father loved music and he had really eclectic taste. He played me the Eric Clapton record Just One Night, and Truth by the Jeff Beck Group, and I thought, that’s exactly what I want to do. And then, I can make a living doing this? Pinch me.
That guitar was a 1972 Fender Stratocaster in crimson red. My father bought it for $340 from Big Apple Music in Utica, New York. I’d always ask guitarists I’d played with to autograph it. There’s Buddy Guy, who signed it after drinking a fifth of Jack Daniel’s in front of me; Larry ‘Texas Flood’ Davis; Stephen Stills, who invited me to a rehearsal when I was 11. BB had signed it just before this picture was taken. He called his guitar Lucille, after a woman that two men were fighting over in a bar. I called my guitar Rosie, because it was red – I was a real deep thinker back then. It was a few more years before I let girls steal money from me and break my heart.
That summer I played about 20 shows with BB. He’s the nicest person I’ve ever met in the music business. He is the blues, the blues is him. He’s still excited about being on the road. I’m not sure I’m going to be still playing The Ballad of John Henry aged 88. But I look at BB and that is exactly how I want to live my life. He’s the one who said, you want to watch your money; make sure you get paid right. He helped me write the playbook on what I’m doing now.
Back at school, the teacher asked what we’d done on our vacation and I wrote a detailed account of touring with BB King. The teacher’s reply was, ‘Please stop making stuff up in your gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane in the Land of Make Believe.’ But I had the backstage pass.