RIP B. B. King- Thank You For “Signing My Bust”

Some people have reported they can’t either see or hear the video. I have posted it two ways and hope to resolve that. 

B. B. King, by sculptor Bridgette Mongeon
A sculpture sitting with B. B. King years ago was the highlight of my career

Note: After writing this post, my now grown daughter created a post on her business blog titled The ” Day B. B. King came to my house for dinner.” She was about 5 when this happened. Her blog post should be read by any creative person who has even a little guilt about being a parent and following your dreams.

Also, KHOU came to my studio and created a segment on me after this post came out. You can see it here or by viewing

Thank You, B. B. King
Many years ago, I was young, and my dad would look at me with a faraway gaze as I talked about my plans and business accomplishments. Then he would say, “Ah to be filled with spit and vinegar.”

I had found my creative calling. I found clay. I fell in love with molding things from the deep earth, while experiencing the sweet smell. I enjoyed pushing, pulling and coaxing it into shape. Sculpting was what I had hoped would be my career- I wanted to be a portrait artist. I did what other artists through the centuries have done. I asked myself, “What person could I sculpt that would make a difference in my career as an artist?” I had already sculpted Willie Nelson and presented him his bust at the Houston Livestock show and rodeo, but that is an entirely different story.  I love the blues, and when I heard B. B. King was coming to Houston, I thought he would be a wonderful person to sculpt.

Those watching my career back then called them “notches in my belt.” Some accomplished artists told me “You need to pay your dues,” if that meant I needed to struggle, I had had plenty of that in my early life. If struggle was all I needed, I often thought I did not need to pay dues, but should by this time in my life, have a full-time membership. I was on a journey of making a living at working in clay and a bust or more than that— a personal sitting with B. B. King was something I thought I should try.

How did I get sittings with the entertainers, many ask when I lecture on marketing in the arts to artists and musicians. In these lectures, I often encourage the audience in tenacity. I guess I am lecturing on “spit and vinegar.” I help them to realize that they are not alone in their insecurities and obstacles. All artists have them. The key to success is rising above the insecurities and keep going “full speed ahead.”

In the case of my sculpture sitting with B. B. King, it took a bit of chutzpah, as my Jewish friends would say. This guttural, back of the throat word is perfect to accentuate the grasp of the waiting, and the pushing and the prompting that it took. But the simple first step was that, “I asked.”

In reality, getting an audience with a legend was not nearly as simple as just asking. There were a lot of minutes of insecurity as the possibilities balanced precariously on each of my actions. “Who should I talk to, how should I approach them, Who do I need to find? How will this workout? These questions prompting me to action were accompanied by “What am I doing, and why would this person give me their time?” I never doubted my ability as an artist; I knew I could create a magnificent likeness, and I was anxious to try. I knew the passion I felt for this man’s music would transfer from my fingers to the clay. Later in life I would study the science behind how this happens—how I could capture the essence of someone. I wrote about it, especially when it pertained to deceased loved ones and people I have never met. But at the time of my experience with B. B. King, though I didn’t know the science behind how it happend, I just knew I could create a likeness if I were given the chance.

There is a happy dread in that moment of first introduction. It happened when he arrived at The Hard Rock Cafe in Houston, Texas. They scheduled him for a personal appearance. Securing my audience with him or at least his manager required a tremendous amount of chutzpah. If you could hear my effort in that word in those moments, you would think, I was coughing up a lung. For I needed chutzpah again, and again, and again as I encouraged and held on to the belief in myself and mustered up that spit and vinegar.

Those connections are easier for me now. I realize they are all just people, and I’m blessed if something comes from our meeting. If my work can inspire and encourage them, I’m even more excited. My age has calmed me in these meetings. In hinsight, looking back it probably didn’t hurt that, at that time, I was somewhat of a looker.  Though I had no idea I was, and I was a bit neive to the concept and power of being a “looker.”

My friend helped me with finding our way, and we dubbed her as my temporary “rep” lending a bit of importance to me. Together we meandered and worked the appropriate people at the Hard Rock Cafe until the sitting was secure.  The next day we would meet at the Allen Park Inn, Mr. King’s hotel, where he always stayed. Over the years, time and progress have assisted with the demise of the Allen Park Inn, it is no longer there. At that time in my life, I knew about the Allen Park Inn only for their bar’s manhattans. I was not a drinker of manhattans but in this previous life I was in advertising and worked next door to the Allen Park Inn at a place called Metzdorf Advertising Agency. My boss went to the Allen Park Inn regularly for lunch… and their Manhattans.

Pulling into the Allen Park Inn I muttered, “I’m simply parking my car at a hotel.” I parked in the furthest space, for from time to time, this car would have a tendency to smoke, and on bad days it would start on fire. I grabbed my calipers and measuring tape and papers, stepped away from the car, looking back to the engine to see if I should take concern before entering the hotel. I was happy that I would not have to use the extinguisher I kept in the back seat or dial 911 and cause a scene. I entered the hotel. “I’m simply searching for the room where I will have a sitting with B. B King.” I silently told myself. My heart was a flutter not just at meeting the man, but at the idea that I was starting a real career as a portrait artist. I held tight to the goal in my heart. Somehow, with tenacity, chutzpah, and the spit and vinegar passed on to me through my daddy, and with B. B. King’s help, I would work my way up and out of advertising. I would be a full-time commissioned sculptor.

Reminiscing on paying my dues, I realize that the most important belief in myself had to come from me. Counting others to believe in oneself is senseless. You are the most important thing to you. Sure, many people were interested and helped me along the way. But just as many people didn’t get what I was trying to do with a career as an artist and prompted me to —”get a real job.”

During the sitting in “conference room A” of the Allen Park Inn, I sat side by side with B. B. King. He was a very large man with an enormous but gentle personality. There are several people in my life that I had met and when I met them I had an instant bond to them. B. B. King was one. Interestingly enough, I had the idea that he somehow knew how he would affect my life. It was if our time together was rehearsed. I don’t think I can explain that.

With each of the legends I have sculpted, I have often wondered about their life, their personality their journey. The writer in me would have loved to sit and chat to know about where he came from to document his process of “paying his dues.” The artist in me uses these conversations and emotional connections to pull in that essence, I mix it with craft and add it to my clay.

During the sculpting process, I take photographs all around the subject. I also need measurements. I don’t have the luxury as artists of old did. The classical artists would have a person sit for them. I desire such commissions. In this sculpture “sitting” of old, the artist would converse and get to know their subject. There were often days spent together. The artist would often reside in the subject’s homes. These sculpture sitting could last for weeks or even months at a time as the artist would work at the convenience of the royalty that they were sculpting. I see now how these encounters could make a difference in the lives and careers of the artist of old. Unless, of course, the artist were not charming and made a horrible houseguest. These long-term and personal encounters would have done a great deal for the client and artist, they would have cemented the relationship into a friendship and in turn they would become a patron of the artist. I believe it is the artist’s personality as much as their work that people buy.

I have no such luxury with the sittings of old though I would one-day love to do have such a sitting and develop such relationships. My first sculptural sittings are to obtain photographs and measurements. I take measurement with an instrument known as calipers. Calipers are two pieces of metal that are hinged together and curved at the front. When I have sittings with children, I tell them the calipers are a duck beak. I often sculpt children and had at one point a fantasy of being the portrait artist preferred by the stars. I would capture the memories of their children. I have sculpted many, many children, not that many that were famous, but they are one of my favorite things to sculpt.

When taking measurements I put one end of the calipers at one point, say the notch of the ear, and the other at another point say the chin. I tighten them and then lay that measurement on my ruler, recording each measurement precisely. There are about thirty measurements that I take for a portrait bust. Of course when I’m sculpting deceased loved ones there are no measurements, so often I will create the masterpiece with just images. This second part of the sitting is the taking of photographs all around the subject.

Most people have no problem with being measured, but some people do not like their faces touched. I wanted to make this part of my process known to B. B. King, just in case he was one of those who did have trouble with being touched. My hands and calipers in my lap, I pulled my chair up to his side.

Sitting close to B. B. King “The thrill is not gone.”

“Mr. King. I’ll have to touch you during this sitting.”

He looked at me and with that same bluesy conviction and said, “Darling you are already touching me.”

I looked at my hands and laughed, with a bit of concern in my breath. He eased my confusion.

“Your thigh is against my thigh and, believe me, the thrill is not gone.”

Of course, everyone in the room laughed, and that interaction broke any tension there was in the room.

The initial sitting did not take long. Mr. King went back to whatever a musician does at an obscure hotel in Houston, and I went right to work. I would not see B. B. King until the following day when we would have the second sitting. I developed my pictures at a one-hour photo processing company and sculpted all night long.

B. B. King sing my bust

I worked fast and furious through the night with the help of coffee and blues music playing in the background. I didn’t have a studio back then. Remember, it was the beginning of what I hoped would be a career. No, I worked between two confining walls in the smallest room in my home, with blue music playing in the background, I sculpt/danced, as I sometimes do when the mood strike. Mr. King was coming around dinner time the next day for the final sitting. I had less than 24 hours to complete the work.

The next day he arrived in a limousine, and I was glad that there were no neighbors out to greet him. I kept the entire thing on the down low, but later neighbors chided me. Celia across the street was the spitten image of Mom’s Mabley. If you are familiar with Mom’s Mabley, you can visualize what the encounter looked like the day she heard B. B. King was in my home, and she was not invited. Neighbors did learn to pay closer attention when they saw a limo in my middle-class driveway in this unassuming neighborhood.

I had prepared for Mr. King’s visit by wheeling the bust into the living room on a sculpture stand. I placed a chair where Mr. King could sit in the center of the room and rotated my sculpture stand around him making final touches on the sculpture and checking my proportions. When I finished, I invited him to take a closer look. He commented on how erie it was to look at himself and feel that the sculpture might talk. I handed him a sculpting tool, and in the playful mood from the day before I sheepishly smiled showing my dimples and asked, “Mr. King, would you sign my bust?”

Now it was he that had that surprised look in his eye as I assured him, “The sculpture Mr. King.”

He signed his signature near my own.

Upon completion, my “rep” had prepared a southern meal, hoping to releave B. From his continuous travel and restaurant meals. (Mr. King told us to call him B. But I just could not, and continually referred to him as Mr. King. I have grown up in the south and also refer to men as sir, so when I was not responding with Mr. King, I would often say, sir. )
After my final sitting, we would sit around my scuffed antique table under the wicker chandelier dining on greens and meat and sharing stories. Though I’m not partial to greens and my best sustenance at that meal was my accomplishment, even though I had little to no sleep I had completed the bust.

Mr. King invited us as his personal guests to the show that night at Rockefllers. Rockefellers was his choice venue when he came to Houston. Not a big amphitheater, but instead it is brick building created by renowned architect Joseph Finger in 1925. For years, it was Citizen’s Heights Bank. Rummor says that Bonnie and Clyde held up this bank. From 1979-1997, it was B. B. King’s preferred venue. It seemed to go with his charm and warm nature. It is no longer open to the public for such events unless you are getting married. My… things have changed over the years.

The balcony of Rockefellers runs around along the inside perimeter looking down on the marble dance floor, made into a seating area for the intimate audience. The stage ran along the back. As his “preferred guests” we were let in the back door behind the stage. Behind stage passes sound wonderful, unless you have been up for 24 hours sculpting and could think of nothing more than sleeping, or at the very least—sitting. I learned a very hard lesson that evening. A lesson that I would take with me the rest of my life and when sculpting other entertainers. To everyone else a concert is a party atmosphere, it is a laid back atmosphere, but for me… it is still work. I didn’t party, but I was exhausted. I was thrilled to be there but listened to the urging of a friend who saw how tired I was and said, “You should go home and sleep. You stayed for one set.”

Here is my hard lesson. My “rep” told me the next day that after the concert B. was looking for me and wanted to introduce me to everyone in the audience as his “official sculptor.” I was mortified. I told her, “You told him I had been up all night sculpting, didn’t you.” She assured me she had and that B. said, “Tell Bridgette, that is is not over until the curtain comes down.” I have remembered that all of these years. Even if I have sculpted 24 hours and I am exhausted, I will put in the overtime. I’ll continue till the falling of that final curtain when I can rest my head with my accomplishment and know that I did everything I could do. At that time, I will call it an evening.

I never gave Mr. King the original bust. I was unable to afford to have it cast. I sat the first one next to the original and copied the sculpture in clay, I fired it and had it sent to Mr. King. I still have the original bust with both of our signatures in my studio. I fully intended to have it cast in bronze. Maybe I will pull it out and do that now. It would be good to see it, make the mold and reminisce of our time together.

Our interaction nearly 30 years ago was my last. I am sorry for that, as I am certain he had many important things to say, and as I said, when we met I felt it was meant to be—a certain destiny between us. I have no idea what stories other people have to tell, but mine were sweet and pivotal in my life. I am so very thankful for the opportunities he gave me. I’m thankful for the sculpture, the stories, and the interaction. As I enter into new areas in my life, and new commissions as an artist of not only portraits but much more, I will look back on that experience with love.
Your final curtain has gone down, rest in peace Mr. King. Thanks for the “thrill” and for signing my bust.

In his words

Better not look down
If you want to keep on flying
Put the hammer down
Keep it full speed ahead
Better not look back
Or you might just wind up crying
You can keep it moving
If you don’t look down

Bridgette Mongeon is a sculptor, writer, illustrator and educator as well as a public speaker.

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