A Look Back at When B.B. King Rocked Boston University’s Presidential Inauguration
Legendary blues artist B.B. King died Thursday night in Las Vegas, two weeks after entering hospice care for dehydration. The Mississippi native, as well-known for his butterfly-like vibratos as his Gibson ES-355 guitar affectionately named Lucille, was 89.
King was no stranger to Boston, joining the Rolling Stones when they played the old Boston Garden in 1969. Twenty-seven years later, King found himself on Commonwealth Avenue, as Boston University found itself at a crossroads. President John Silber—whose then-25-year tenure saw BU’s transformation from a woeful commuter school into a world-class institution attracting Nobel Prize-winning scholars, albeit while staving off unionization, alienating faculty, and dismantling the student press—would soon pass the silver university mace to his handpicked successor and longtime second-in-command, Jon Westling.
Westling’s inauguration in late October 1996 was a lavish, weekend-long affair. Students, faculty, and staff were given that Friday off to celebrate, first at a prayer service at Marsh Chapel, followed by a ceremony behind the Tsai Performance Center. The fête ended at the Commonwealth Armory with a “Student Concert and Comedy Hour,” featuring Mr. B.B. King and “popular comedian” Steven Wright. For context, the following week saw BU host “a series of events inspired by the approach of the millennium.”
More than 4,500 students attended the free concert, joined by the newly inaugurated eighth president of Boston Univeristy. “I’ve been a B.B. King fan for 30 years,” Westling told the Daily Free Press. “I made the decision to bring him here with a little help from my friends, namely my three children, Emma, Matt, and Andy.” From the FreeP’s October 28 account:
Screams of ‘Thank you, Jon’ echoed through the Armory for Westling, who was inaugurated as BU’s eighth president on Friday. For the first half of the concert, most of the audience remained seated, although a few students danced by the right wing of the stage. But when Westling got out of his seventh-row seat to join the dancers, crowd members jumped to their feet and danced along. Westling said the show was everything he had hoped it would be.
Westling would step down in 2002, sending Aram Chobanian to the throne. The Commonwealth Armory would be demolished the same year, clearing way for the sleek John Hancock Student Village that now stands in its place. King is passed, and the thrill? The thrill is gone, baby.