Richard Flohil Remembers BB King

Industry veteran Richard Flohil receives the Unsung Hero Award at The CIMA Gala on Monday. He touched upon one aspect of his fascinating career in this earlier FYI interview.

.Longtime Toronto music promoter Richard Flohil was the first to bring in B.B. King to Toronto for a concert. The two stories about ‘the King’ below are taken from Richard’s forthcoming book, ‘Louis Armstrong’s Laxative and 100 Mostly True Stories About A Life In Music’.

Bringing relatively obscure blues artists to Toronto set me up for what I thought were more important things. And the one bluesman I had always wanted to see was B.B. King.

Evelyn Johnson, King’s agent at the Buffalo Booking Agency in Houston, Texas, was fascinated by my English accent. “Oh, man, you sound so quaint,” she told me. 

Booking B.B. King, certainly the most significant — and influential — modern blues artist of the day, was a major step forward, but one loaded with risk. In the fall of 1968, King had yet to achieve either the status or the massive international fame that he so rightly deserved; a date in Canada’s premier concert hall could be financially disastrous for an amateur promoter.  

In fact, between the time I’d made the deal to present him in Massey Hall the following year and his arrival in Toronto, he had his first — and only — massive crossover hit, “The Thrill is Gone.” Suddenly, and it seemed to happen almost overnight after 20 years on the road, B.B. King had left the chittlin’ joints and the black theatre circuit behind.

He had found a white audience in the nick of time; his long-time African American fans had moved on. To them, the blues suddenly seemed old fashioned, irrelevant, and even distasteful — a reminder of old and bitter times. 
Joe Cartan, the manager at Massey Hall, gave me a date at the hall — Valentine’s Day, February 14 — without even a token deposit. Tickets would be $4.50, $3.50 and $2.50; I booked Ian and Sylvia’s guitarist, David Rae, to open the show.

Sometimes I tell people that B.B. King’s Toronto concert was his first Canadian date — it makes for a quicker story — but in fact he played a small theatre in Kingston, Ontario, two weeks before. I drove up to see him, along with Buddy Guy, in Toronto on a day off, and Adam Mitchell, who was the lead singer with a band called The Paupers (and later a successful producer for Manhattan Transfer and Linda Ronstadt).

That night, Buddy went on stage to jam with King; his playing was restrained and complementary. He left his high-powered, screaming style behind him, and the joy on King’s face told the audience how pleased he was to have the youngster on stage with him.

When he arrived in Toronto two weeks later he plunged into a round of radio and print interviews, nodding off for 10-minute catnaps every hour or so. He was gracious and friendly and open with everyone he met — reporters, radio people and fans alike.

The show was a sell out, and, at my very first major concert, I made the grand sum of $700.00, although the tickets were only $4.50 and $2.50. Twenty years later, King smiled at me backstage at another Massey Hall show, and said: “You must have lost money on that first show here, years ago?” 
When I told him it had been very successful and had convinced me to continue presenting music, he shook his head and laughed, “I’m glad I helped!”

 

How B.B. King (finally) met the guitarist who had influenced him

A year after his Canadian debut, I got an early evening phone call at home. “It’s B.B. King,” he said. ”Do you know where I can find Lonnie Johnson?”

Johnson had been living in Toronto for five years. A significant figure in the storied histories of jazz and the blues, he had recorded with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in the late ‘20s, and had r&b hits in the ‘40s (“Tomorrow Night” and “Jelly Roll Baker” among them). Though a storied figure, he had been part of the American Blues & Gospel tour packages to Europe, by 1965 he found himself now almost vanished from the international scene, playing small clubs in Toronto.

Although they had never met, King counted Johnson as one of the most influential figures — along with jazz guitarist Charlie Christian — in the formation of his own unique style.

I told my surprise caller — in town early for a show and enjoying a rare night off — I’d get back to him. I phoned Howard Matthews, the owner of the city’s first soul food restaurant, The Underground Railroad, a key figure on Toronto’s burgeoning black music scene, and the husband of singer Salome Bey.

“D’you where Lonnie Johnson is?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. 

“Well, where IS he?” I asked.

“In my kitchen,” was the reply.

I drove down from the suburbs in my small and rusting Toyota, picked up King at his hotel, and drove over to Howard’s downtown house. As I walked King into the kitchen, I saw that Johnson was not alone. Sitting as far away from each other as possible, in opposite corners of the room, were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, who knew King and were delighted to see him.

I introduced King and Johnson, and they hugged each other.

In the years since, people ask me what they spoke about, but I have no idea; I left the room almost immediately, feeling that I had no place at this meeting of two of the most important figures in the history of the blues… 

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