As far as rhythm playing goes, it may not get any better than being B.B. King’s sideman. Check out this job description:
  • Must love to play (seriously, we’re talkin’ 250 gigs a year)
  • Must be willing to carry the comping load (B.B. is famous for not being able to sing and play at the same time)
  • Must also be willing to trade solos with a blues legend, often (nearly every song)
  • Short-timers need not apply (The 82-year-old King is only on his second rhythm player)
  • Must be willing to travel (B.B. continues to tour across the globe)
  • Must be willing to roll with the flow (stars like Bono or Joe Bonamassa are likely to sit in when you least expect it)
Meet Charles Dennis, or Charlie Tuna as they used to call him back in the day. Before hooking up with King, Dennis played with Bobby Bland and also had his own band that was a Vegas mainstay. The 59-year-old has been playing with King for six years now, an eternity by today’s standards, but in this band he still gets referred to as “the new guy” or “the young guy.”

We recently caught up with Dennis – in between gigs, of course – and chatted about his gig and his gear before he was shuttled back onto the road to head to the next city.
B.B. King and Charles Dennis

Look at you man, the show just ended and you’re already packed up, got your coat and stocking cap on – you’re ready to hit the road.

I tell ya, that’s what this gig is all about, man. We do our thing and then immediately start thinkin’ about the next town.

As the “new guy” you’ve gotta be on your toes, right?

[Laughs] That’s it, man.

So tell me, how did you get this gig?

I was playing at a club and B.B.’s keyboard player came in... I played a B.B. King song for the first time that night and he happened to have been in there. He came up and sat in with me, then he left and went back and I didn’t think nothin’ of it, I kept playing with the band. And then I got a call to come fill some dates out. [B.B.''s previous guitarist] went in the hospital, which is the reason I did the dates. When he came out [of the hospital] B.B. had both of us playing together. The other guy happened to pass away and I’ve been here ever since... So it was like a God-sent gig to me, actually. B.B. said, “Don’t you go nowhere, you stay right here,” and so I did, and I’ve been here ever since. But B.B.’s a great guy to work for; he really looks out for his people and that’s why we’ve got people who have been here 20 and 26 years… You know it must be somethin’ good when people stay that long.

How long have you been playing with him?

I came in to replace his original guitar player six years ago.

Tell me about your career before then.

I was with Bobby Bland before that, then I had my own band in Las Vegas – I lived in Las Vegas – called "Tuna or Later." My nickname there was Charlie Tuna. So I was in the Las Vegas area, playing all the casinos and all the different stuff there when one of B.B.’s keyboard players came by.

So what’s it like being on the same stage?

I follow. I don’t need to shine. My whole thing is to do what I can to make him sound good. Now, when I get to do my own thing, then it’s about me – you see, I know how to lead and how to follow. So I watch and learn from him because he’s been here for a long time. I watch him and read him and it’s wonderful for me, I really enjoy it. And I think he enjoys it, too. He enjoys me stickin’ a few licks here and there. We were in England one time and he said, “Come here son, you know what? You really inspire me to play again.” And it felt so good for me to hear him say this -- he’s just such a great guy.