By: Mary Milewski
He grew up among country folksin Mississippi. As a child, heperformed on street corners for dimes,sometimes in four towns eachnight. That was only thebeginning for the manwho ended up beingperhaps the mostsuccessful bluesmusician of all time.
Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 25 yearsago, King has used the same work ethicto stay in the best possible health whilemaintaining a tour schedule that wouldbe considered grueling for a musicianone-quarter his age.
Eighty Years Old and Still Going Strong
“The King of the Blues,” who turned 80 on September16, 2005, says, “So far I’m still doing pretty well as awhole.”
Some days, King doesn’t even feel like he has diabetes,a diagnosis that he says came as a surprise.“I thought I wouldn’t live very long. I didn’t knowmuch about diabetes.”
Upon diagnosis, King started reading up on diabetesand learning more about his condition. After learningthat he could control type 2 by testing his bloodglucose and taking an oral medication, he began todevelop more confidence.
The internationally renowned blues musician says heis amazed at the technology available today to helppeople manage their blood glucose levels.“Now there’s help from little machines, like theOneTouch [LifeScan glucose meter], that help youkeep good control,” he says.
A Strong, Bluesy Voice for Diabetes
King says it’s fairly simple to stay healthy with type 2.But it wasn’t always that way, especially for his fatherand mother.
“My father died at 87, and the only thing I know isthat he had high blood glucose and gout. My motherdied when I was 9. I think she went blind before shedied. It must have been related to diabetes. Nobodyknew what to do at that time. We were people livingout in the country. We didn’t have all the modernconveniences like blood glucose testing.”
As a LifeScan spokesperson, King says he is honored tohave the chance to tell people the truth about diabetes.“I hope my voice and the things I say will encouragesomeone out there and help them learn the truthabout diabetes and act on it,” he says. “A lot of peoplewould like to have the actual truth. Some people don’tbelieve that diabetes is life threatening. But it is. I losta sister and a niece who had diabetes. I tried to begthem to do what they should, but they’re not with meanymore.”
His message about the importance of diabetesmanagement and blood glucose control is clear.“Make sure you check your blood sugar and see yourdoctor. Try your best to go with the diet you’re given—and don’t cheat by eating foods or quantities you’re notsupposed to, or by doing things you’re not supposedto,” he says. “I’ve lived a pretty long time. I’m not sicktoday, and I haven’t been sick for a while.”
Performing in Control
King has never had a problemwith a low blood glucose whileperforming.
“I don’t worry much. I canfeel sluggish when my bloodglucose is up, but I’ve neverhad a low blood glucose onstage,” he says. “They haveglucose, like a glass of orangejuice, on stage for me if I golow. But I haven’t [gone low].I’ve been able to stick to adaily routine with my diabetesmanagement. I hardly know I’mdiabetic sometimes.”
Blood glucose testing hasbecome much easier over theyears, says King, who testsevery day. He manages hisdiabetes with Glucophageand also takes Actos.
“I used to have to use theold way, to prick my fingersfor tests. It was like taking ashovel and digging it into myhand,” King says, and laughs.“But today, it’s quick, andbefore you know it, you haveyour reading.”
King admits to having a sweettooth, like many people withor without diabetes. Sugar-freeproducts made with artificialsweeteners provide him with thesweet treats he enjoys but thatwork with his dietary requirements.
“Most of us crave [sweets] morethan ever because we’re toldthey’re off limits,” he says. “But Ilearned how to shop. I can go buysugar-free candy and ice cream andcookies.”
Taking Diabetes on the Road
King tries to maintain a normal diet whilehe’s on the road. He travels eight months outof the year on average, which makes it hardfor him to go for routine checkups or tests.But he says he follows his doctor’s orders formedications, blood glucose testing and diet.
“I don’t eat a lot of heavy foods,” he says. “Itry to eat vegetables quite often, and not toomany fattening foods… I try not to eat toomuch each day because I’m well overweight.”
Even with his meal plan, his unpredictabletravel schedule and late nights performingmake it a constant challenge to keep regularmealtimes.
“It’s sort of weird for me,” he says. “Mybreakfast might be at noon. We travel a lot,you see. Last night I was in Hyannisport, andtonight I can’t tell where I’m gonna be. TodayI’m somewhere in New Hampshire, tomorrowI think we’ll be in Canada.
Even if breakfast isn’t until midday, King likesto eat something simple like oatmeal. Later inthe day he’ll enjoy a heavier dinner of steak.As a general rule, he tries to avoid refinedsugar and simple carbohydrates. He adds thathe never drinks store-bought juices.
“I buy oranges and make my own juice,” saysKing, who also enjoys “lite” foods as well as“diet” beverages and foods without addedsugar.
50 Albums and Now a Memoir
Today, King is actively touring the country,playing 90-minute blues sets with histrusted guitar “Lucille.” He is celebrating theSeptember publication of “The B.B. KingTreasures: Photos, Mementos and MusicFrom B.B. King’s Collection” (BullfinchPress), a lavish volume co-written by Kingthat includes a CD-ROM of him talkingabout his music and his life. Earlier thisyear, he released “B.B. King: The UltimateCollection” (Geffen), and “B.B. King andFriends” (Geffen), onwhich he performs duetswith noted artists such asEric Clapton, Bobby Bland, Elton John, GloriaEstefan, Roger Daltrey, John Mayer and SherylCrow. King’s discography includes more than50 recordings.
B.B. King Fast Facts
B.B. King averages more than 250 concerts per year around the world.
Over the years, the Grammy Award-winner has had two #1 R&B hits, 1951’s“Three O’Clock Blues” and 1952’s “You Don’t Know Me,” and four #2 R&B hits,1953’s “Please Love Me,” 1954’s “You Upset Me Baby,” 1960’s “Sweet Sixteen,Part I” and 1966’s “Don’t Answer The Door, Part I.”
King’s most popular crossover hit, 1970’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” went to #15 onthe pop chart.
Birth name: Riley B. King
Born: September 16, 1925, on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi
Recorded between 90 to 100 blues albums
1948: Performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM inWest Memphis. What started out as Beale Street Blues Boy, wasshortened to Blues Boy King and eventually to B.B. King
1956: King and his band played an astonishing 342 one-night stands.
1968: Played at the Newport Folk Festival and at Bill Graham’sFillmore West
1969: Opened for the Rolling Stones for 18 American concerts
1984: Inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame
1987: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; received NARAS’Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award
1991: B.B. King’s Blues Club opened on Beale Street in Memphis
1996: Pens autobiography, “Blues All Around Me”
2005: Received Congressional Legends Medal