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B.B. King's 1977 concert in Yellowknife remembered fondly

The death of B.B. King Thursday in Las Vegas has Yellowknifers reminiscing about the one and only time the blues man performed in the Northwest Territories.

Blues man heated up the small crowd in a cold Gerry Murphy Arena

B.B. King played a concert at the Gerry Murphy Arena in Yellowknife in May of 1977. (James Jerome/NWT Archives)

"Be there and you'll hear it. Miss it and you'll hear about it!"

That was the promoters' pitch on the poster for B.B. King's concert in Yellowknife on May 2, 1977.

The weather was cold, and so was the old Gerry Murphy arena. Organizers put down plywood over the ice.

"The crowd didn't mind, they were Yellowknifers," says Sandy Wilson, who played guitar with the band that opened for King.  

"The guys on the stage from the south were blowing on their hands."

But things heated up when the blues master hit the stage, says Gail Cyr, who was in her early 20s at the time.

B.B. King at the Gerry Murphy arena in Yellowknife in 1977. (James Jerome/NWT Archives)

"I was at the front and we were kind of huddled up, feeling pretty good. Everyone was really moving.

"I recall it as a wonderful night and I'm saddened to hear that he passed."

Stayed at Yellowknife Inn

King died late Thursday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 89.

On his one and only visit to Yellowknife, he played two shows in one day, stayed at the old Yellowknife Inn and left the morning after.

In 1977, Sandy Wilson was a regular fixture on the music scene in Yellowknife. He later went on to form a band with fellow musician Pat Braden. (Braden says he got all the way to the door of the B.B. King concert but because he was underage, he didn't try to get in.)  

WIlson and and some friends provided the sound gear for King, who brought his full band including a three-piece brass section.

"We had a couple of bands worth of gear on the stage and a good amp for King. I figured he should be playing the big amp, and he did. He played that thing like a truck." 

But it was King's singing that really stuck with him.  

"Made the hair on the back of my neck stand up," he says.

"I really felt it. Simple style. Notes were pure and real sweet. His licks were real soulful. I loved his voice and his message.

Small turnout

Concert-goers say there was a smaller-than-expected turnout for such a big name. 

George Tuccaro remembers meeting King that day. 

"He said 'If there's 10 people I'll play for them,'" Tuccaro remembers. 

"He was a big man and he had Lucille wrapped up like a child. He treated that guitar like a baby."

Wilson says organizer Terry Mercer lost about $7,000 on the event. 

"Mr. King was very gracious," he says.

"They paid for their own expenses. They paid for their own meals. Terry died a few years later. He had cleared that debt off."

Even though it was a small crowd, Wilson says when King and his band performed "The Thrill is Gone," it sounded like it came off the album.

Wilson now teaches music in Brockville, Ont. He says he still has the ampliflier King sang through. 

"Sometimes I look at that thing and say to a student, 'B.B. King played through that thing.'" 

In Yellowknife, no less.

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