Riding with the King
Meet the woman who's kept the world's most famous bluesman on schedule for more than 50 years.
Polly Walker is the proverbial great woman behind a great man near and dear to the Bluff City's heart — B.B. King.
Walker has worked in a variety of capacities for the King organization over the years. Today Walker coordinates his travel from her midtown home office. "People ask me, 'You still work?' I say, 'We have to eat.'"
Each June King takes a break — if you can call it that — from his schedule of 250 dates a year in concert halls and arenas to return to his roots in Indianola, Mississippi. He performs a kid-friendly show under fireworks at Fletcher Park near downtown, before playing through the wee hours at Club Ebony. It's the kind of working-class joint that helped spread the butter on the Blues Boy's bread in his early days.
King hit it big in the Bluff City in the early 1950s, and eventually ascended to international stardom, but he maintains an extensive network of friends, family, and business associates between his hometowns. The annual homecoming brings it all back together for one weekend, thanks in part to Walker, whose life and livelihood have intertwined with King's.
Walker's late husband, Cato Walker Jr., drove the musician's tour bus — dubbed "Big Red"— from 1952 until health problems forced him into retirement in 1976. Their son Cato Walker III, a senior vice president of development for Performa Entertainment Real Estate in Memphis, worked as King's sax player and music director until 1979.
Walker's husband got her involved in the early days of King's touring career. "I went to work [for him] in '55. Memphis was a home base to B.B., and he needed things done here, but they were always on the road. I opened an office [at Beale and Danny Thomas] in 1965."
Walker booked King's concerts during the 1960s while he was between national talent agencies. "I got the biggest map A.R. Taylor [office supply company] sold and that's what I used to keep track of where he was coming from and where he was going to," she recalls. "'B' used me [as his manager] until Sid Seidenberg convinced him that a guy in New York could do more for him than a woman in Memphis."
She remains unimpressed with her unique role in music business history. "It was a job, it was nothing to brag about," Walker says.
Seidenberg's management elevated King to his current stature, in part by booking him internationally, as well as in college festivals and rock-and-roll concerts that expanded King's audience. Another New York-based agent, Floyd Lieberman, represents King today.
King's head never swelled to the size of his reputation, and he took care of those who helped him along the way. He continued to pay the elder Cato Walker's salary after his retirement in 1976 until his death in 1988.
Walker and an assistant — her daughter Laura — stay busy making hotel and travel arrangements for King's band and entourage on his steady touring schedule, including the homecoming festivities. "I do a lot of faxing," she says, surrounded by piles of paperwork, filing cabinets, and office equipment.
Members of King's inner circle know that Walker is the one to talk if they want to reach King. "People call, especially his friends and family, and ask where he is."
As far as bosses go, Walker says that King's a good one. "He still pays every Sunday. He gives you salary, insurance, and transportation. Now you can't get better than that with other folks."
This year's B.B. King Homecoming takes place June 9th in Indianola.