News that B.B. King died last night in Las Vegas brought back some great memories from the ’70s.
When I came to Kansas City in 1969, I was in the Army Reserve and had to transfer from a Louisville, Ky., unit.
I found one that had openings in KCK, 78th and State Street, and joined up. It was easy duty — I was the payroll clerk — and we had some good times. In that unit, I met the only two guys who, to this day, I call “my ol’ Army buddies.”
They are Richard Arthur and Joe MacCracken, and we have lunch at Planet Sub on Main just about every Friday, including today.
Richard and I were single (so was Joe but he didn’t hang out with us much after duty hours), and we were always looking for places to go and girls to chase. One of the places Richard, a Kansas City native, knew about and liked was the Inferno Lounge, on Troost at about 42nd Street.
Boy, did we love that place. It was dark and, as I recall, had a lot of red adornments, giving it the look of an inferno. It had live bands — our favorite was The Stoned Circus — and also played juke-box or d.j. music.
Our recorded song was B.B. King’s “Why I Sing the Blues,” which opened with a guitar lead-in and B.B. uttering the immortal words, “E-e-e-e-e-verybody wanna know why I sing the blues…”
When the first notes of the lead-in started, just about everybody in the place would jump to their feet and head to the dance floor.
The dance of choice? The one and only “Funky Chicken.”
Most of you probably don’t remember The Funky Chicken. It involved three main moves: 1) jutting your head out and back while keeping your neck as still as possible, 2) flapping your arms and elbows as if you were trying to take flight, and 3) pumping one leg up and down a couple of times, then switching to the other.
(For those of you who would like a professional primer on the Funky Chicken, see demonstration here.)
I will readily admit I have always been “dance challenged” — no rhythm whatsoever — but that was the one dance where I think I actually looked like I knew what I was doing…At least I was able to reasonably simulate what the people around me were doing.
The song lasted more than eight minutes, including B.B.’s long solo on “Lucille,” his beloved guitar, and it took a lot of endurance to make it through the entire song on the dance floor. But we were young and highly motivated to impress the girls and not about to slough off.
…The Inferno closed a few years later, giving way to places on Broadway and in the Plaza area. Richard was discharged from Reserve before I did, and the Funky Chicken era passed without notice.
My other B.B. King story also dates to the early 70s. Some of you may remember the days when flowered, polyester shirts and leisure suits were the rage in men’s fashions…I wasn’t about to be left behind, so I got myself a pair of pink, cotton pants; a deep-green, flowered shirt with some pink swirls or something; and a wide-brimmed, banded straw I purchased at The Landing shopping center, 63rd and Troost.
The first time I wore that outfit was to pick up a girl on a blind date. I don’t recall who fixed me up, where she lived or where we went. All I remember is putting on that outfit, looking in the mirror and thinking, “Damn, boy, you look good!”
When I arrived at the young lady’s house, I went up to the door and knocked. She opened it, looked at me and got sort of wide eyed and her mouth opened just slightly.
She already had been thrown for a loop, but I added another layer of confoundment, saying…
“Hi, I’m a friend of Jim Fitzpatrick. He sent me to check you out.”
“What?” she said.
“Just kidding,” I said with a big grin. “I’m him.”
…Like I say, that’s all I remember about that date. There was no second date.
I realized pretty soon that I had overestimated the charm of that outfit, and I put it in the closet, never to be worn by me again.
At that point, I lived with a few other guys in a rental house in Brookside. (Our landlady was Florence “Flo” Stevens, owner of the Patricia Stevens Modeling Agency.) One of my roommates, Bart Strother, was a huge B.B. King fan and never missed a B.B. King concert. (B.B. played Kansas City dozens of times during his long career.)
On one occasion, B.B. was performing with Bobby “Blue” Bland, another of Bart’s favorites, and Bart mentioned that he wanted a “special” outfit for the occasion.
“I’ve got it,” I said.
From the back of the closet, out came the pink pants, the flowered shirt and the big-brimmed hat.
Bart took one look at it and said, “Perfect.”
The pants were a little tight on him, but otherwise he was as well turned out as I was the night I knocked on the door of that unsuspecting young lady.
As I recall, Bart and his buddies rented a limo to go to the B.B. King/Bobby “Blue” Bland show.
Next day, Bart reported that, as best he could recall, the outfit was the best at the event…by far.