This was going to be a good night for me; I could feel it. Here I was, sitting inside my brand new Koss headphones, and tinkering with my Revox tape recorder, which was loaded up with a 9" reel of Scotch virgin tape, and ready to go. Same setup I had used during the spring semester of the last academic year to make a wonderful recording of James Taylor, at Clark University. This wasn't Clark University, however; it was the nearby Worcester State College, and in a few moments B.B. King would be on the stage. I could hear the crowd in the headphones — maybe a bit too loud in my left ear, so I carefully turned up the knob on the right — ever so slightly. Not too much, just a whisker.
My concentration was shattered by the hard tapping of a finger on my head. This was not something I was hearing in the headphones; this was a finger tapping on my head. I remove the headphones, twist around, and find myself staring up at a tall, somewhat angry looking black man of about my age. He has a middle finger in the air, beckoning me up and off my chair in front of the tape recorder.
"Gotta' come with me, boy," he says.
Puzzled, I say something about the tape recorder, and how I can't go anywhere — particularly with the concert just about to start, and ...
"Gotta' come with me, boy," he says again. "Someone wants to see you."
I shrug, and nod to my comely undergraduate assistant. She has heard what is going on, and senses the same whiff of inevitability in the air as do I. I get to my feet, and motion to my new friend to show me the way. He refuses.
"You first," he says. "I'll follow. Head out that way, around the right side of the stage."
So I do as he says, and soon find myself on the other side of a heavy metal door which clangs shut behind us and in a long, narrow, concrete hallway. You couldn't hear the crowd in the auditorium any more at all, but only our four feet on the floor instead. The walls were white painted cinder blocks.
"Down there, on the right," I hear over my shoulder, and stop in front of another large metal door. My guide holds me aside, knocks on the door with a strange sequence of knocks, and thrusts the door open. In he goes, dragging me in with him, by the elbow.
"This is him," he says to a group of four or five people huddled around a table under a bare tungsten light suspended by a cord from the ceiling. Four of the faces look up. The fifth, which belongs to B.B. King, stays focused on the frets of his guitar, which he is playing, one long, bent note at a time.
The guitar riff ends, ever so slowly, and the four faces of the attendants rotate towards B. B. King, who takes a deep breath of air and looks up at me. I am visibly shaking in my jeans jacket and my cowboy boots.
"Wattcha' doin' out there," he asks?
"Making a tape, or getting ready to make a tape," I reply.
"An' wattcha' gonna' to do with the tape, once you make it?" B.B. asks.
"Going to listen to it, real loud," I say. "Got this room back home with speakers all around and with pillows on the floor, and, if the tape's any good, it sounds just like being there. I teach about this in the university, about...
B.B. silences me with a wave of his hand, which then causes another long, beautiful note to issue forth from his instrument. The note changes pitch, glamorously, as it fades back into the silence of the room.
"Aw, shee-it," he says. "Make your tape. Just so long as you're not working for some other record company, or planning to make cassettes and sell 'em. Not doin' that, are you?'
"No sir, Mr. King," I reply, performing some sort of salute in the process. "No sir, Mr. King!"
B.B. is laughing now, and looks up over my shoulder at the fellow who escorted me from the auditorium and down into this basement. "Hear that, Stevo? This young man calls me Mr. King. I should always get respected like that."
Stevo shuffles his feet at my side, and looks at the floor.
"All right," B.B. continues. "But listen, you in the jeans jacket. We hustlin' big time out there now — Albuquerque one night, Houston the next, San Jose the night after that. Idea is for the whole world to hear this music. But what that means is we hear everything that's going down, and if it turns out that this tape of yours is gettin' sold out there anywhere, know what's gonna' happen? Don't answer, I'll tell you: this man Stevo is gonna' come back an' see you, aren't you, Stevo?"
Everybody in the room is laughing now, except me.
"Yes sir, Mr. King," Stevo says.
* * *
Editor's Note: Gil Markle made the tape that fall night in 1969, with Stevo's help, as it turned out, the latter expertly positioning a microphone midway between B. B. King's guitar amplifier on the stage, and the chair on which he sat. Markle is not absolutely sure that "Stevo" was this man's first name. The tape was made at 3 3/4 ips, Dolby-B encoded, quarter-track. Only fragments of the master tape survived the ravages of time, but these included a particularly poignant rendition of Gambler's Blues.
Audio digital encoding, 2003: Toby Mountain.
Photo credit: Frank Schindelbeck.
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All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.