Saturday, May 2, 2015

One Night With B.B. King Cost Me $14,000, and Was Worth Every Penny

UPDATE: Since I posted this a short while ago B.B. King has passed away. I first met B.B. King almost 30 years ago. Here's the story of one night I got to spend with the man...

There's been some confusion, so to set the record straight, no, B.B. King is not dead. Soul legend Ben E. King died at 76 on the same day that 89 year old blues legend B.B. King announced on his website that he was in Hospice care at his home in Las Vegas.
Soul legend Ben E. King
B, as his friends and family know Riley B. King, was first diagnosed with Type II diabetes almost three decades ago, after he was found in his Rolls on the side of the road in Vegas in a coma. There were premature reports of his death then, too. I know all too well. I co-promoted his very first show back after recovering, 'Love Comes to Town: A Blues Benefit for the Homeless' at Michigan State University in East Lansing. It was also the first show in 40 years of touring where he sat down. Sitting down, talking to the audience and playing a few songs without his fantastic orchestra became a regular part of his show from then on. It was a brilliant show. B.B. never sounded better. Everything that night went off without a hitch, but that was far from the case for everything that had come before.

Me with Kenny Kinsey, Ralph Kinsey, BB King,Lester"Big Daddy" Kinsey, Donald Kinsey and Ron Prince
From the beginning we had problems. The first problem was the university missed the ticket release date by almost two weeks. It was during this delay that we encountered the second problem: B.B. King's health problems. Because he was initially hospitalized in a coma, premature reports of his death were flying. Some newspapers ran their canned B.B. King obits and radio stations paid homage with special B.B. King programming. Early ticket sales were disappointing, to say the least. Who buys a relatively high dollar ticket to see a dead guy? It didn't help that his management cancelled six weeks worth of shows, every single show right up to ours.

B.B. King with U2 at Sun Studio during the recording of 'When Love Comes to Town'
Traditionally blues shows do bigger walk-up business than other genres, so we were still optimistic that with a strong promotional effort we could sell out the house. B.B was touring on the strength of, ‘When Love Comes to Town,’ recorded at Sun Studios with U2. The single hit number 2 on the US charts. Plus, B.B. King had always done well in Lansing. With the right promotion we hoped we could get his long-time fans to drive the few miles to East Lansing. We hit the barbershops, community papers and community radio stations in the African-American neighborhoods of Lansing and also promoted heavily on classic rock radio, around East Lansing and on campus. Then we were hit with the knockout punch.

Magic Johnson drives on Isaiah Thomas 
 There was no way to know it in advance, but show night turned out to be the same night as Game 7 of the NBA Finals between the Detroit Pistons and the Los Angeles. The Pistons, only 75 miles down the road, had a rabid local following. Compounding the problem, the Lakers were led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who was not only a Lansing native, he had taken Michigan State to the NCAA Finals, where MSU beat Indiana State, led by another future Hall of Famer, Larry Bird. Magic was more than just a local sports hero. He was THE sports hero.

Magic John and Larry Bird, 1979 NCAA Final
The crossover between our audience and the audience of the game was too much to overcome. We sold about half of the tickets we had expected to sell. Any one of the problems we could have overcome. Maybe even two. But this was a perfect storm of promoter's nightmares. After expenses, including a guaranteed donation to a homeless services agency, we lost just over $14,000 on the show.

Shortly before he went on B.B. sought me out backstage. There was no way to hide the fact that half of the seats were empty. Or to hide my disappointment. He put an arm around me and pulled me in close for a hug and said, “Sometimes things just don’t work out. Don’t let it get you down. This isn't your fault. It’s just one of those things. What you’re doing here is a beautiful thing. Keep the faith.” It mean the world to me at the time and still does.

I've known B.B. King for many years. We aren't friends; we had a business relationship, but he treats everyone he meets as a friend and I’ll always think of him as a friend. He’s a very humble man. He always has a kind word. He is one of the most giving artists I've ever met, and one of the most giving human beings. He played 150 or more shows every year for nearly seven decades, a touring career unmatched by any other artist. Even in his senior years he would stay after a two hour show for hours more to talk with fans and sign autographs, despite being physically exhausted and often having a show hundreds of miles away by bus the next night.

B.B. King greeting fans and signing autographs after a show
I'll cherish every moment I was lucky enough to spend with this great man. He's far outlived any expectations, and he's lived a life as full as full can be doing the thing he loves the most and bringing joy to millions doing it. B.B King is not going to recover this time. He hasn't left us yet, but this is the last chapter of an amazing life. That's what Hospice care means. But instead of being sad about this, celebrate the life, the art and the humanity of Riley "Blues Boy" King, the true King of the Blues. I guarantee you, that's how B would want it.

Bernie's Run Is Good for Democrats and Good for Hillary Clinton

Bernie Sanders has officially announced his candidacy for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. What chance does he have to actually win the nomination? None, and he knows it. So, why is he running and is it ultimately good for the Democratic Party?

The only other announced candidate so far, Hillary Clinton, begins her 2016 campaign with $229 million in cash left over from her 2008 campaign. There are no FEC reports on 2016 fundraising yet, but she's projected to raise an additional $30 million in the weeks after her announcement. Unlike 2008, where she asked large donors to max out their contributions during the brutal race for the Democratic presidential nomination against Barack Obama, this time she's asking donors to hold back half of the legal maximum to be spent on the general election. Democratic super PACs, most expected to back Clinton, have half a billion dollars to spend, and this is just the cash on hand. The Clinton campaign and Democratic super PACs together are projected to raise as much a staggering $2 billion during the long campaign season.

Bernie Sanders has no banked campaign cash to spend. In an appearance on MSNBC today Sanders told Ed Shultz that he's raised around $500,000 via his website. Put in perspective, Hillary Clinton has 458 times as much cash on hand as does Bernie Sanders, and that's not counting super PAC money that’s likely to flow in her direction. While Bernie Sanders has run successful campaigns on a shoestring before, first for mayor of Burlington, Vermont, then for the House and finally for the Senate, each time besting a well funded opponent with strong major party support, a national campaign is a very different animal. Vermont is one of the smallest sates in the country. It's possible to drive anywhere in the state in no more than a couple of hours and on less than one tank of gas.  With a small population in a small state, what a candidate lacks in cash can be made up by grass-roots organization and pressing the flesh. Put simply, Bernie Sanders does not now and will not have the cash to mount a serious challenge, and he said as much today.

The other problem Bernie faces is meeting the bar for entry to the Democratic presidential debates. The DNC has yet to announce the criteria for candidates to make the cut this cycle, but it generally involves being on the ballot in enough states to mathematically win the nomination as well as having a specific percentage of support according to an average of the polling. Because Hillary Clinton is far ahead in terms of cash and support, and because the DNC has lined up behind Hillary, it's likely she will have quite a bit of influence over the ultimate form of the debates. Another problem for Bernie Sanders is that unlike 2008, when the debates began in the Spring, this time around the DNC plans on waiting until mid-September to mount the first debate. Given his lack of cash and relatively weak support, it’s likely that Bernie Sanders will not be able to last until the Fall.

All of this puts the DNC into something of a debate quandary. If there's only one serious candidate, there may be no contested debates at all. This would not be good for the party or for Hillary Clinton. Debates provide for a way to inject important and controversial issues into the political discussion which might otherwise be avoided. They also provide an important way for voters to get to know the candidates as human beings. This is particularly important for Hillary Clinton, who's running a campaign that's more personal, stressing that she's a mother and a grandmother, and well to the left of her 2008 campaign.

Bernie Sanders knows full well that he has no chance at the nomination, or, for that matter, a spot on the ticket. For one thing, he's not really a Democrat. He's officially an independent, though he caucuses with Democrats in the Senate. He describes himself as a "democratic socialist." America is not ready to elect a self declared socialist now and may never be. No candidate can win a national election without winning a majority of moderate voters, and to the voters in the "squishy middle, just the term "socialism" is anathema, even though they may support policies that are essentially socialist.

Bernie Sanders is running to move the party discussion to the left. He wants to make sure his the issues most important to him - economic fairness, reigning in corporations and reducing the influence of the ultra-rich, addressing climate change and a building a better social safety net - are taken seriously. With almost no money to travel or buy TV ads, the debates would provide the best way for him to do this, but if there are no debates, or he's gone by debate time, he can't achieve this goal. It's a problem for the candidates and the party.

One solution would be to allow Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well other high profile Democrats who may wish to participate, to champion their issues in a casual open forum format rather than a formal debate, with Hillary listening and then responding to all of them. This kind of soft debate would go a long way in bringing progressives disaffected by Hillary Clinton on board and energizing them to work on her behalf and ultimately to turn out and vote.

Something along these lines would not only solve the DNC's dliemma, it would give Bernie Sanders a high profile platform to speak about the issues most important to him without having to raise impossibly high mountains of money. Inviting Elizabeth Warren, who's repeatedly said she’s not running, to participate as well would also go a long way towards wooing disaffected progressives back into the Democratic fold by showing that Hillary is sympathetic to progressive issues and has the support of progressive champions. Other candidates of high profile Democrats could participate as well, even if Hillary has sucked all of the oxygen out of the room in terms of fund-raising and popular support. The progressive vote and the youth vote were both vital to Barack Obama's wins in 2008 and 2012 and it will be vital again in 2016.

The biggest strategic concern about a Sanders run is that it will fragment the party. We're already seeing signs of this on social media, where there's been much unfriending and unfollowing. There have been strident, passionate clashes between progressives supporting Sanders and liberals supporting Hillary. Hillary Clinton graciously welcomed Bernie Sanders to the race after his announcement. Bernie Sanders has nothing but nice things to say about Hillary Clinton. It does not appear likely that we will see a repeat of the kind of knock-down, drag-out primary season we saw in 2008. If the two campaigns maintain a positive tone towards each other, the rifts can be healed by November of 2016. In the end, the presence of Bernie Sanders in the race is a good thing for the small "D" democratic process as well as the Democratic Party and its ultimate nominee, whoever she may be.