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Rhythm of the King: An Interview With Charles Dennis

B.B. King''s sideman has a demanding job - but he loves every minute.

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.

Also when we were there they had him on TV. At this time, he was 80 years old, and they said, “You know, you’re 80 years old. You could retire. You’ve played everywhere, you’ve done everything. You could retire now.”

He said, “I don’t want to retire. I want to play because I want my band to keep workin’. I’m out here for them. Plus I like doin’ it too.” That made us feel real good. We had no idea [about the comment], we were just watching TV back in the room and saw he was on there so we said, hey, let’s watch this. So that was nice; it made us feel really warm to hear him say that.

How many shows a year are you guys doing now?

250 now. He’s 82 years old and he’s still playing that much. He’s starting to cut down – he thinks he might cut down to 150, but he hasn’t yet.

What advice do you have for PG readers?

Trust what you feel, because that’s what it’s all about. B.B. doesn’t know a whole lot about music when it comes to chords and all that, but his feel carries him in a jazz situation, a blues situation or a rock situation. And he has no idea as to the technical side of what he’s doing. There’s no method, no pattern – it’s just his heart and his feeling. That’s all that really mattered. How clever you are and how tricky – all that’s fine, but if your heart isn’t stronger than that, it still don’t mean nothin’. [Patting his chest] This here can take care of all of it, but you have to trust it. You can’t be afraid. You have to go on it and stick it out there. That’s what I advise.

Tell me about your gear.

I love my Byrdland. As a matter of fact, to show you how good Mr. King is… When I started playing with him, I had a [another guitar]. And I felt funny [due to the King/Gibson connection], so I called Gibson to ask for an endorsement. And they said, “Well, it’s going to cost you $5000. It’s really $17,000, but you play with B.B.”

So I went to B.B. and asked him what I should do. He asked me what I wanted, I told him, and he said, “Well, go down to the Gibson place and play all of ‘em, and when you find the one you like, let me know.” And I went down and played all of them, and then I saw the Byrdland that you saw me playin’. They had chairs all around it and a sign that said, “Do not touch. Do not come within five feet.” I said, “That’s the one I want right there.” So I left the store and went back to the room. I told Mr. King, “Yeah, I saw a Byrdland I liked.”

We were workin’ that night, and when I got to the dressing room the guitar was sitting there. I mean, I didn’t know I was gonna get that! There was a guy waiting, he said, [mimicking nervous voice] “Oh, I’m so glad you came because I wanted to give this to you directly. I didn’t want to be responsible for $17,000.” So I went to Mr. King and said, “Thank you sir so much for gettin’ that guitar for me.” And he said, “Is there anything else I could do for you?” I said [laughs] “Aw, no man!”

So what kind of amp do you use?

Actually, that’s a Lab, that’s an L7. I like it because…

[Road manager hollers at Charlie]

Sorry man, you know, when we’ve gotta go, we’ve gotta go.

And like a well-oiled machine, the entire band, Charlie included, was on the road again, no questions asked.

Photos: Andrea Shriver Concert Photography