The Thrill Is Strong for 80-Year-Old B.B. King B.B. King's loved ones gathered at a Southern California home recently to celebrate his 80th birthday with a backyard concert featuring performances from some of his closest friends.

The Thrill Is Strong for 80-Year-Old B.B. King

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ED GORDON, host:

Once known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, B.B. King continues to reign after 60 years of great music. NPR's Farai Chideya reports that the blues giant, his guitar Lucille and lots of celebrity friends gathered to celebrate some major milestones.

(Soundbite of "The Thrill is Gone")

Mr. B.B. KING (Musician): (Singing) The thrill is gone...

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Let's change that to `the thrill is strong.' With a new album and book released this month, bluesman B.B. King continues to electrify audiences around the world. Oh, did we mention that he just turned 80 years old? And boy, does he know how to celebrate. Gladys Knight, who calls him Uncle B.B., gave tribute.

Ms. GLADYS KNIGHT (Singer): And he was on the road all the time. And whenever he would meet up with us, the first thing he would say, `I know you all are hungry.' So he was always feeding us, and he was always teaching us. And as we grew in the industry, we got a chance to work with him, and he would tell us, `That's not good' or `That's great.' He made us feel like we could do anything.

CHIDEYA: Knight and her brother performed...

(Soundbite of "You've Got A Friend")

Ms. KNIGHT and Unidentified Man: (Singing) You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I'll come running....

CHIDEYA: ...along with Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy...

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BUDDY GUY (Musician): (Singing) Oh, you know you's a hoochie coochie man, B.B., and everybody knows it here.

CHIDEYA: ...and B.B. King's good friend, actress and singer Della Reese.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. DELLA REESE (Actress and Singer): (Singing) Well, every day, every day, every day I have the blues. You see me worried, baby. It's you I hate to lose.

CHIDEYA: Reese performed with B.B. King in the segregated jazz clubs of the 1940s and 1950s. She says his music provides answers to questions of the heart.

Ms. REESE: Answers to sadness, answers to gladness, reasons to celebrate, understanding of the problems that people are having, sympathy and empathy.

CHIDEYA: Celebrities including Bill Bellamy, Angela Bassett and William Hurt all came to the Los Angeles suburb of Encino to celebrate. The bash did double duty as a fund-raiser for a B.B. King museum being built in the musician's hometown of Indianola, Mississippi. Carver Randle remembers running behind B.B. King's pink Cadillac when he came to play the big hometown venue, Club Ebony.

Mr. CARVER RANDLE: In the late '40s and early '50s, that was one of the three showplaces in the South. There were people such as Count Basie, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf. All of these names people came to a town that back then had only about 5,000 people.

CHIDEYA: Now Randle is leading the drive to raise $10 million to build the museum.

Mr. RANDLE: Yeah, it will be very interactive. It will cover each phase of B.B.'s life from the cotton fields, tractor driver, gin worker, you know, to where he is now, going through Indianola, Memphis and all the places he's gone since he's left Indianola to his international prominence now.

CHIDEYA: The fund-raiser was hosted by King's friends, William and Mary Haskell, who are also organizing a benefit concert. It's called Mississippi Rising and will air live on MSNBC on October 1st. They had a hard time picking just one favorite B.B. King song.

Mr. SAM HASKELL (Fund-raiser Host): I love them all.

Mrs. MARY HASKELL (Fund-raiser Host): That's impossible, isn't it?

Mr. HASKELL: I think if I chose one, I'd be making a big mistake. We're just thrilled to be able to hear them all tonight.

Mrs. HASKELL: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Well, you couldn't hear them all, not in one night. But B.B. did rock the crowd.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KING: (Singing) I'm like the picture on the wall. Don't let me fall.

CHIDEYA: King owns a series of blues clubs, has just released an album of duets called "80," with stars including Eric Clapton, and has his life lavishly chronicled in the new book "B.B. King Treasures." But he fondly remembers the start of his career. Like his friend Carver Randle, B.B. cites the club Ebony as an inspiration.

Mr. KING: Club Ebony was one of the first clubs that was built that I know about by a black person in Indianola. The guy's name was Johnny Jones(ph). When I was growing up in my home state, you didn't hear much about black people, in the paper, that is, unless they did something like stole somebody's chicken or broke in their house or something. But this particular time when Johnny Jones built this place called the Club Ebony, they had his name and picture in the paper, and that's unusual. So that stays in my head and my heart.

CHIDEYA: And although he's glad to celebrate so many years as a performer as well as years on this earth, one thing that makes him profoundly glad is a still-evolving image of a new South.

Mr. KING: I saw four seated presidents, I went to see the pope and I did 90 different countries around the world. But one of the things that meant more to me was going to Mississippi, being invited to Mississippi and being honored by the state legislators. I think that was the most important to me than anything else because when I was growing up, I was scared to go there.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: He's not scared anymore. Not of the South or seemingly of time itself. And like the guests at his party and his fans around the world, we too wish B.B. King many more years of life and health and joy. Farai Chideya, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KING: (Singing) I need you so to keep me happy.

GORDON: You can hear full-length cuts of some of the songs performed live at B.B. King's birthday bash on our Web site. Just go to

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KING: (Singing) I need your arms around me tightly.

GORDON: That does it for the program today. To listen to the show, visit If you'd like to comment, call us at (202) 408-3330. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KING: (Singing) I need you so. Oh, I need you so. I long to hear your little knock...

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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