The Band Director
Walter Riley King: Saxophonist, Band Director & Musical Director to BB King reveals his secrets of the road. It’s important to learn from your boss and the other musicians – that’s how I did it. I had just played in the band as a sideman for only 2 months. Then one day, I was told “the band is yours”. I was already with it, and ready to go.
My first night on stage I ran from one side of the stage to the other side, picking up notes, glasses of water – back and forth for at least 40 minutes. Then BB (King) calls me over and asks me “How do you like your job? “I said “OK!” I realized then it was not all about music. There was more to the job than just music.
For a total of 10 years I was a band director, and some of my fondest memories are from this time. One such memory was during the Football Season. Like most bands, we always played the star spangled banner before the game. This was the 1st home game of the season, and as the music started playing, I realized that it just didn’t have the feeling, the passion, that I thought it should have. So, I stopped the band. I said to them: “you need a vision – a visual reference, to play this piece”. “Do you know how many brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, fathers, mothers and friends have given their lives so that you could play this song? Let’s try this again, thinking of all those who have sacrificed for us, while we play – majestic, and wonderfully warm music with feeling. That’s what it’s all about.“ The band had never played the national anthem like they played it that night. Every time after that, it was easy for them, as they had a vision for the music.
The Musical Director
From 1984 to 1995, I was the Musical Director for BB (King). During that time there were many stories that we made together. One stands out: We were somewhere in Florida, and like most nights I was responsible for knowing the opening act. I would write the act’s name on the back of a business card, or I would have a card from the group, and I would hand this to him (BB King). On one particular night, I handed him the opening act’s card, and he looked at the card, then looked at me, and says “I can’t read that!“. Confused, I took the card back and checked it out…there was no difference in size, color, or print than on any other night. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just said “ok”, and the next night I decided to pay a visit to the opening band. The opening band had a dressing room next door, and they had 4” bold letters which were 3-4 times the size of any other letters used. I knocked on the door and asked if I could have the sign off their door. They said “sure”, so I took the sign, and folded it down to the size of a business card. When it came time for the opening act to be acknowledged, I handed BB (King) the folded paper. When he opened it, it looked like an accordion. And I said “can you read that?”. He never complained about the size of a card ever again.
Every night, we would do “time”. If we were getting close to the end of the show, and if we were at a Union House, I would tap on the back of my watch and I would look at him. Sometimes he’d keep going, and if it was getting closer, I would tap again. One time, he looked back, and motioned for me to come over. At this time, he had this huge gold Rolex. He said “son, what’s the difference between my watch and yours?”, and I said “$25,000.00 “. After that, he didn’t say anything else, and he closed out the show.
Advice & Tips For Players On The Road
Keeping up with skills on the road…I found that to be really hard, but there are so many ways this can be done or achieved. One has to think about space, and our time, because we all have our favorites for practice. Sometimes musicians need to simply remember the basic “stuff” they don’t need a whole book. In the end, to perfect one’s craft as a musician, you simply have to do what has to be done.