You’ve all heard about arrogant, high-maintenance celebrities. Y’know, the ones that need to have a certain designer brand of water, or a specific color of M&M’s, for themselves and their entourage. Well, this guy was pretty much the opposite of that.
Ironically, it was on the set of an M&M’s commercial where I had the honor of meeting him. The year was 1995, and the M&M advertising account had been recently awarded to BBDO advertising, where I was working as a punk account executive. Lucky for me, I was assigned to oversee creation of their new ad campaign and, luckier still, the creative team was my super-talented friends Susan Credle and Steve Rutter.
Long story short, Susan and Steve knocked the assignment out of the park; they took the old M&M’s characters and gave them a whole new attitude. In one set of commercial storyboards, the M&M characters Red (who would be voiced by Jon Lovitz) and Yellow (voiced by John Goodman) goof around with the actor Steven Weber. And in another proposed spot, the two characters complain about the recently concluded “color vote,” in which America chose Blue as the new M&M color, and bemoan the fact that the new Blue character is going to steal their spotlight. Red jealously complains about Blue’s cool stature, “Heh, he’s even got B.B. King singing the Blues!”
With the storyboards approved, we headed to LA, where we quickly realized how boring it is to shoot commercials that will contain animation. That’s because, first, you have to painstakingly block out all the shots, to ensure the real-life elements are framed correctly and the lighting is just-so. And then, when the human actors begin their work, they have to interact with tennis balls that are hung in place of the missing animated characters, so that everyone’s sightlines and movements look correct when the animation is added in post-production. It’s a very conceptual and painstaking process.
Not surprisingly, on the first day, everything ran late, and Steven Weber had to work with us into the evening, even though it was his birthday and his girlfriend had a party waiting for him. On the second day, things went even slower, as the “Blue” spot featured lots of complex animation. It wasn’t until after lunch that we started filming with human actors.
And then it came time to film B.B. King. He had been waiting patiently all day at the back of the set, and he walked out dressed in a garish blue coat, flashing an eager smile. We all figured it would take several hours to shoot his scenes. But, as it turned out, since all of the shots had been so well-prepared in advance, we were able to get what we needed in short order. After which we thanked him for his participation, asked him to sign some memorabilia, and told him it was wrap. He and his manager started collecting their things.
Just like that, the live-action shoot was complete. We opened up the studio’s huge garage door, the crew starting loading out the equipment, and the client and agency folks got ready to head back to the hotel.
But then B.B. circled back. He said he was surprised how little had been required of him, and that he thought we deserved a little more. His manager got him a chair, and set him up with a small amplifier. B.B. plugged in his guitar Lucille. Everybody stopped what they were doing, and gathered around.
And that’s how we found ourselves – client, agency and crew – standing in the California afternoon sun, being entertained by one of the best blues men in world, with a heartfelt, stripped-down version of “The Thrill is Gone.” Magnificent.
B.B. King was the nicest man you could ever hope to meet. He will be missed.
But I have to say, in one respect, he was wrong.
The thrill lives on.