B.B. King At The Burning Spear, Chicago
Photo by Charles Sawyer. Copyright, ©, 1997.
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It is a Saturday night in the spring of 1978. The Burning Spear, one of larger night clubs on Chicago's West Side, is full. Any fire marshal not on the take would stop the show. Every seat in the house if full, and the aisles are jammed with dancing, laughing, boozing patrons. The audience and the nightclub are almost timeless. This could be 1939 at Jones Night Spot in Indianola, Mississippi, or 1950 at the club Handy on Beale Street in Memphis, or the Apollo Theater in Harlem, around 1960. The audience is comprised of no special age or marital status; tow and three generations of the same family can be found at some tables. All imaginable variations of dress from casual to theatrical are visible in the soft light reflecting off the stage and shining up from candles flickering in colored glass cups at the tables. Wide-brimmed hats wag beside tall, glittering wigs fit for a Renaissance court. Only one trait unifies this audience: race. The dozen-odd white faces dotted among the eight-hundred-plus black ones look oddly like piece of lint on a dark cloth.

B.B. is facing a stiff challenge. This is no casual warm-up set, it's Friday and nearly midnight. The crowd has already heard two hours of music, and they are ready for the show, wound up tight. Moreover, the people here know B.B.'s music intimately, most of them have followed him over the balance of his career. In his first set of this three-day gig, he must give his best -- if he doesn't, the fans will know.

The emcee, a bucket-mouthed, willow-legged gag man, beins B.B.'s introduction and quickly charges up the crowd. The music swells, and the emcees' last words blare out: "Mr. B.......B......King!" As B.B. wriggles under his guitar strap, the band abruptly switches to a fast shuffle. The crowd cheers louder. B.B. hits the first seven-note figure on his intrument, and the crowd goes haywire with excitement. Middle-aged women stand at their seats, hands over heads in ecstatic worship, shaking their broad, besequined buttocks, shoting cries of joy. Twenty-four bars into the number, the band stops abruptly and B.B., half-singing, half-shouting, draggin out the lines far longer than the shuffle tempo would ordinarily allow, introduces his performance with the lyrics:

Hey everybody!
[Band strikes a chord]
Tell everybody!
[Another chord]
That B.B. King's in town.
[Chord]
I got a dollar and a quarter
And I'm rarin' to clown.
[Chord]
But don't let no female
Play me cheap.
I got fifty center more than I'm...
Gonna keep.
So let the good times roll.

Pandemonium.

Seventy-five minutes later, shortly before 1:00 A.M., B.B. closes the show to a tumultuous ovation.

So begins a three day stint, two shows a night. B.B. takes the stage for the second set around 3:30 A.M.

The opening set of day two is cut short when a woman rushes on stage and lunges at him. The horn players grab at her but fail to catch her before she seizes B.B. around the neck. The speed with which she crosses the stage, the desperate way she clutches him with unmistakable force, the savage look on her face have all the distinctive characteristics of an assault. As the woman lays her hands on him, B.B. feels something sharp in his neck and a slicing sensation behind his ear. The next moment the horn players have her arms pinned behind her. B.B. reaches back to the spot where he felt the painful sensation. His hand feels something warm and wet. Blood? Sweat?

As her hurries off stage, he murmurs, "I think she cut me."

The audience comes to its feet, the house lights go up. The emcee exhorts the crowd. "No one in show business is more open to his audience than B.B. King, and now this happens. The woman cut him and it's a damned shame!"

Backstage, B.B. discovers superficial fingernail wounds an no blood. In all likelihood, the woman had meant him no harm -- a zealous hug or something of the sort -- but the following night, the popular version of the episode will evolve to include a new element: supposedly the assailant had returned to her table and bragged, "I cut him, I cut him," whereupon another woman sitting at the same table supposedly pulled a pistol from her purse, and, pointing at the braggart, challenged here, "Try it just one more time, sugar."


The quest for this photo required levels of patience and endurance I no longer have. I located myself at a table to the side and rear of the stage, hoping to get a shot that would portray the shear exhuberance that B.B. King can draw out of his audience. As a performer B.B. always relies on the craft he learned from his relative by marriage, Preacher Archie Fair, from the Sanctified Church of his mother's deep faith. The goal is always the same: group catharsis. He rarely misses his mark.

To hit my mark I sat on this spot set after set, my eye pressed to the view finder of my Leica. When I think back to that time I'm reminded of the way an Inuit hunts for seal. He cuts a hole in the ice, then covers it over with ice chips and snow except for a very small hole, beside which he shoves a stick into the snow. With frozen spittle he fixes a tiny feather, just above the hole. When a seal swims along beneath the ice, he will see the sun shining down through the thin cover of the hole, indicating air above. He sticks his nose to the hole and breaths. The feather flutters and the Inuit plunges his spear down through hole into the seal. The hunting consists of endless minutes, stretching into hours, with his eyes glued to the feather. If he misses the fluttering of the feather he misses the seal and he goes hungry. I was such an Inuit with an icy spear, seated beside the stage of the Burning Spear waiting for the feather to flutter. I must have shot ten rolls of film in the Burning Spear during those days, about 350 images. This was the only one of lasting value. One seal can feed a whole family, though, maybe even a village.