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He grew up among country folks in Mississippi. As a child, he performed on street corners for dimes, sometimes in four towns each night. That was only the beginning for the man who ended up being perhaps the most successful blues musician of all time.
Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 25 years ago, King has used the same work ethic to stay in the best possible health while maintaining a tour schedule that would be considered grueling for a musician one-quarter his age.
Eighty Years Old and Still Going Strong
“The King of the Blues,” who turned 80 on September 16, 2005, says, “So far I’m still doing pretty well as a whole.”
Some days, King doesn’t even feel like he has diabetes, a diagnosis that he says came as a surprise. “I thought I wouldn’t live very long. I didn’t know much about diabetes.”
Upon diagnosis, King started reading up on diabetes and learning more about his condition. After learning that he could control type 2 by testing his blood glucose and taking an oral medication, he began to develop more confidence.
The internationally renowned blues musician says he is amazed at the technology available today to help people manage their blood glucose levels. “Now there’s help from little machines, like the OneTouch [LifeScan glucose meter], that help you keep good control,” he says.
A Strong, Bluesy Voice for Diabetes
King says it’s fairly simple to stay healthy with type 2. But it wasn’t always that way, especially for his father and mother.
“My father died at 87, and the only thing I know is that he had high blood glucose and gout. My mother died when I was 9. I think she went blind before she died. It must have been related to diabetes. Nobody knew what to do at that time. We were people living out in the country. We didn’t have all the modern conveniences like blood glucose testing.”
As a LifeScan spokesperson, King says he is honored to have the chance to tell people the truth about diabetes. “I hope my voice and the things I say will encourage someone out there and help them learn the truth about diabetes and act on it,” he says. “A lot of people would like to have the actual truth. Some people don’t believe that diabetes is life threatening. But it is. I lost a sister and a niece who had diabetes. I tried to beg them to do what they should, but they’re not with me anymore.”
His message about the importance of diabetes management and blood glucose control is clear. “Make sure you check your blood sugar and see your doctor. Try your best to go with the diet you’re given— and don’t cheat by eating foods or quantities you’re not supposed to, or by doing things you’re not supposed to,” he says. “I’ve lived a pretty long time. I’m not sick today, and I haven’t been sick for a while.”
Performing in Control
King has never had a problem with a low blood glucose while performing.
“I don’t worry much. I can feel sluggish when my blood glucose is up, but I’ve never had a low blood glucose on stage,” he says. “They have glucose, like a glass of orange juice, on stage for me if I go low. But I haven’t [gone low]. I’ve been able to stick to a daily routine with my diabetes management. I hardly know I’m diabetic sometimes.”
Blood glucose testing has become much easier over the years, says King, who tests every day. He manages his diabetes with Glucophage and also takes Actos.
“I used to have to use the old way, to prick my fingers for tests. It was like taking a shovel and digging it into my hand,” King says, and laughs. “But today, it’s quick, and before you know it, you have your reading.”
King admits to having a sweet tooth, like many people with or without diabetes. Sugar-free products made with artificial sweeteners provide him with the sweet treats he enjoys but that work with his dietary requirements.
“Most of us crave [sweets] more than ever because we’re told they’re off limits,” he says. “But I learned how to shop. I can go buy sugar-free candy and ice cream and cookies.”
Taking Diabetes on the Road
King tries to maintain a normal diet while he’s on the road. He travels eight months out of the year on average, which makes it hard for him to go for routine checkups or tests. But he says he follows his doctor’s orders for medications, blood glucose testing and diet.
“I don’t eat a lot of heavy foods,” he says. “I try to eat vegetables quite often, and not too many fattening foods… I try not to eat too much each day because I’m well overweight.”
Even with his meal plan, his unpredictable travel schedule and late nights performing make it a constant challenge to keep regular mealtimes.
“It’s sort of weird for me,” he says. “My breakfast might be at noon. We travel a lot, you see. Last night I was in Hyannisport, and tonight I can’t tell where I’m gonna be. Today I’m somewhere in New Hampshire, tomorrow I think we’ll be in Canada.
Even if breakfast isn’t until midday, King likes to eat something simple like oatmeal. Later in the day he’ll enjoy a heavier dinner of steak. As a general rule, he tries to avoid refined sugar and simple carbohydrates. He adds that he never drinks store-bought juices.
“I buy oranges and make my own juice,” says King, who also enjoys “lite” foods as well as “diet” beverages and foods without added sugar.
50 Albums and Now a Memoir
Today, King is actively touring the country, playing 90-minute blues sets with his trusted guitar “Lucille.” He is celebrating the September publication of “The B.B. King Treasures: Photos, Mementos and Music From B.B. King’s Collection” (Bullfinch Press), a lavish volume co-written by King that includes a CD-ROM of him talking about his music and his life. Earlier this year, he released “B.B. King: The Ultimate Collection” (Geffen), and “B.B. King and Friends” (Geffen), on which he performs duets with noted artists such as Eric Clapton, Bobby Bland, Elton John, Gloria Estefan, Roger Daltrey, John Mayer and Sheryl Crow. King’s discography includes more than 50 recordings.
B.B. King Fast Facts
B.B. King averages more than 250 concerts per year around the world.
Over the years, the Grammy Award-winner has had two #1 R&B hits, 1951’s “Three O’Clock Blues” and 1952’s “You Don’t Know Me,” and four #2 R&B hits, 1953’s “Please Love Me,” 1954’s “You Upset Me Baby,” 1960’s “Sweet Sixteen, Part I” and 1966’s “Don’t Answer The Door, Part I.”
King’s most popular crossover hit, 1970’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” went to #15 on the pop chart.
Birth name: Riley B. King
Born: September 16, 1925, on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi
Recorded between 90 to 100 blues albums
1948: Performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM in West Memphis. What started out as Beale Street Blues Boy, was shortened to Blues Boy King and eventually to B.B. King
1956: King and his band played an astonishing 342 one-night stands.
1968: Played at the Newport Folk Festival and at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West
1969: Opened for the Rolling Stones for 18 American concerts
1984: Inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame
1987: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; received NARAS’ Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award
1991: B.B. King’s Blues Club opened on Beale Street in Memphis
1996: Pens autobiography, “Blues All Around Me”
2005: Received Congressional Legends Medal
Diabetes Health is the essential resource for people living with diabetes- both newly diagnosed and experienced as well as the professionals who care for them. We provide balanced expert news and information on living healthfully with diabetes. Each issue includes cutting-edge editorial coverage of new products, research, treatment options, and meaningful lifestyle issues.