Steve Miller Tribute to BB King

Growing up in Texas in a family of musicians and having a father who was a part time recording engineer exposed me to the blues at a very early age. It quickly became my favorite music. I met T bone Walker when I was eight years old. He taught me how to play lead melodies, play the guitar behind my head and do the splits all at the same time. Later when I got to know BB and had given him copies of recordings my father had made of T Bone in 1951, BB told me T Bone was one of his most important influences and had been the “Bridge from Blues to Jazz” and had inspired BB’s complex arrangements.

By the time I was 14 years old I had my own band and we were backing up Jimmy Reed at gigs in Dallas. In the mid 60’s I was jamming in Chicago with Muddy Waters, James Cotton and Howlin’ Wolf and was playing rhythm guitar for Buddy Guy when I finally decided to head West and seek my fortune and start The Steve Miller Blues Band.

By the late 60’s T Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddy King, Jimmy Reed, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters and BB King were considered by all musicians to be the best active Blues players in the world. When I was 23 I had played with all of them but BB King.

In February 1967 Bill Graham called and told me he had just booked BB at the Fillmore West and wanted my Blues band to open for him. I jumped at the chance. We headed over to the Fillmore and set up our equipment and waited to watch BB sound check. His band was amazing and his drummer Sonny Freeman was the greatest shuffle drummer I had ever heard but there wasn’t a chance to meet BB personally. Just before the show started we took the stage when BB’s assistant came out with BB’s guitar and started walking around with it as we were starting to open the show. It’s an old headliner blues trick used to upstage the openers by exciting the audience and I was pretty annoyed. It’s sort of like disrespecting a fellow musician by saying “ Lets have a big hand for….what’s your name?” Well BB’s guy finally found a place right behind me on the stage where my spot light lit up BB’s guitar.

As I remember it the guitar got a bigger round of applause than our entire band did. Well we started the set and we were going over pretty well and almost through when I broke a string. This was way before the days of guitar roadies and extra guitars and I thought to myself “Well you put your guitar on my stage during my set, I’m gonna use it.” So without thinking it over very carefully I picked up BB’s guitar, plugged it in and tried to play it. It turned out he had the thinest gauged strings and most delicate set up I had ever seen. The first note I tried knocked the two high strings immediately off the bridge of his guitar and I was in total shock at what I had just done. I quickly put them back in place but I was so freaked at what I had just done and afraid I had messed up “Lucille” I quickly finished our set and put BB’s guitar back on his stand. Turned out no one from BB Kings group was watching us and they never said a word about it and later after I was invited to Jam with BB and he was gracious and great to me, it was that jive guitar tech.

Many years later BB and his Band were playing at club in Sun Valley and I went over to see him. It was a very crowded night and I was on the front row when BB came out and opened the show. He sounded great and was singing a verse and answering with lead guitar when he broke a string. I was looking right at him, he never acknowledge anything had happened and kept looking straight ahead smiling and singing while he removed the broken string, reached into his pocket pulled out a new string without looking, unwrapped it, mounted it on the bridge, and fed it through the peg head, wound up the string and finished the job just in time to play his lead solo. He never let on that he had broken a string or that anything unusual had happened and I think I was the only person in the club who understood what had just happened.

I did get to play with BB and he was always generous, kind and inspirational. Thank you BB for all the great music, inspiration and friendship you gave to all the guitar players in the world. We are in Memphis playing here tonight and of course the evening will be dedicated to the Great BB King. We are sure going to miss you. RIP

Steve Miller

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