Robert Johnson may be the father of the blues and Muddy Waters may have established the blues template for the electric crossover of today’s rock stars, and Buddy Guy may yet eclipse the King as the most recognized blues performer, but no one will ever take B.B. King’s crown as King of the Blues.
His influences range from preachers to jazz giants, from Delta sharecropping guitar pickers to the King of Rock and Roll. His friends include U. S. Presidents, Popes, and rock stars from The Beatles to U2. He is far and away the gentlest, sweetest blues man I ever met and the longest tenured of all the blues giants, touring on an average of more than 250 dates a year for almost 70 years. He toured until the end, saying he was fearful that if he stopped he would be forgotten. But the real reason was because he loved singing and playing for his fans. He defined call and response for the masses and blurred the lines between the two to the point where at the end his friends were doing the calling and he was lovingly responding instead of the other way around.
“I’ve never said I was King of The Blues,” corrected B. B. King in one of our interviews in 2005. “That’s you saying that. You’ve never read any place where I say I was King of The Blues. Never have. I don’t agree (with the title, but) I learned one thing a long time ago. When people say something about you positive, smile and say thanks.”
B. B. King was one of the most unassuming artists in show business. Chicago deejay Pervis Spann nicknamed him The King of The Blues in 1964. As deserving of the title as he was by then, he could never see himself that way. To him, it was his job to preach the gospel of the blues to his flock. “My thoughts at the time are still the same today: I wished I could play better than I do,” he told me in 2008. And as far as his legacy: “I used to hear when I was a boy that people shouldn’t cry and sob when they lose someone. (Instead) when a baby’s born, they should cry. Sob for that baby because the person that just died don’t have to go through life again as a lot of us have had to go through.”
B. B. King grew into the title with every passing year of his long career by outliving and overshadowing every other contender in the genre. There may be people who know nothing about baseball, but they recognize the name Babe Ruth. And there are those who don’t know the difference between blues and bluegrass, but they’ve heard of B. B. King. And he did it by staying true to his roots.
Connie Gibbons, former director at B. B. King Museum in Indianola, quotes the late blues icon Rufus Thomas as saying, “B.B. wasn’t a star, He was the moon. Stars can burn out, and the moon never does.” For decades King baptized several generations of blues and rock guitarists and even gifted the Pope with one of his guitars. “I said to him, ‘Holy Father, you’re always giving, and I don’t think you get too much in return. So, since you’re always so good to people, I hope you’ll accept my humble gift. I have a guitar for you. I have read where you played guitar, and I hope that you will enjoy this one.’ And he smiled. I started to pass it to one of his aids, and he took it himself.”
If King had any resentment toward the racism he faced in the business he never even hinted at it. In fact, most others in the business felt he was the kindest man ever to take a stage. His stinging cascade of notes on his guitar Lucille was instantly recognizable, and generations of rock and blues guitarists regarded sharing the stage and back stage with him with intense reverence. And yet he never felt the world owed him a living. “I think you go out and work for what you want, and I did that from the time I was seven. From the time I was seven years old, I was what we call a regular hand in the fields. I chopped cotton. I picked cotton. When I got to be in my teens, I was a tractor driver. I don’t usually brag, but I think I was pretty good. I never heard the word superstar, but I think I was a superstar tractor driver.”
With all his successes there were always the limitations imposed on him as an African American playing simple blues. “I remember once I was in the state of Michigan, and a writer came over to see me, gonna interview me that day. So I used to wear three-piece suits all the time. That is coat and trousers and a vest. So this particular day when he came over, I had just put on everything except my shoes. I had socks on, but I didn’t have my shoes on and so this reporter came in and spoke to me and his headline the next day was “B. B. King Wearing Three-piece Suit and No Shoes.” He was putting me down as a blues player.
He may not have defined blues, but he gave the genre a distinct tone and a stinging vibrato that impacted popular music for more than half a century. “To me, blues is and always has had to do with people, places and things,” he explained in 1996. “But there are so many shades of blues. Even the best jazz players play bluesy jazz. I mean blues notes you hear from time to time. Jazz players are the best blues players ’cause they know how to put the chords together and do the many things that has to do with puttin’ chord progressions together.”
Comparing the greater chart success jazz organist Jimmy Smith had with Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working,” he said, “It was a good blues record, but people wouldn’t play it. Then Jimmy Smith, the jazz musician, made it, and they played it everywhere, everywhere! And to compare Jimmy Smith’s playing, it would be hard. He was an organist and one of the best, but to compare his blues singing with Muddy Waters? That’s another story.
“I loved the country sound, but I could never play using the slide like the blues singers did or like the country musicians played the steel guitar and stuff, but whenever I would pick up my guitar, I’d trill my guitar, and my stupid ears would tell me it sounds somewhat similar to what they were doing. And so that’s how I started with the sound. It was nothing planned, but Lonnie Johnson had some way or something in his playing. It was sort of like a sword to me. It just went through me when I heard it. Blind Lemon (Jefferson) had something in his playing that did the same thing.
“I play blues, but I like (all kinds of) music. Django Reinhardt had that same something. When he played, it just went through me like a sword, and then there was the first black guy that was integrated in a white band, Charlie Christian. Now, one of the best guitar players I ever heard called The Father of The Jazz Guitar. So, when I heard him, I heard the same thing. It was like the sound I’m looking for. Finally I heard T-Bone Walker playing single string blues on the electric guitar, and that did it. And those people I’ve kept. I’ve got it right here in front of me now on my MP3.”
Abandoned by his father when he was four, orphaned five years later when his mother died, this young African American child, Riley B. King as a teenager chose to live by himself in a sharecropper’s cabin in pre-war segregated Mississippi. He spoke to birds and squirrels for comfort and built his first guitar by nailing a broom wire into a porch post.
“I was lonely and lonesome, yes, but there was a little thicket with a lot of animals like squirrels, rabbits and stuff like that, birds, a lot of birds. After my mom died, I used to go down and sit down. I would be sitting on it sometimes, and I would have peanuts and food like that, corn and stuff, and animals I guess trusted me for some reason. They would come up and almost eat out of my hand. And they were my friends. I’ve had a lot of fans and a lot of acquaintances through the years, but I haven’t had a lot of friends. My first idol was my pastor in church. I grew up wanting to be a gospel singer and preacher like the Pastor Archie Fair.”
King heard gospel in church and blues on the King Biscuit Time radio show when he took his lunch break in the cotton fields. “I used to listen to KFFA every day. This is before I left (Indianola, Mississippi) because you know we could hear it very good in the Delta. At that time in the hills of Mississippi I didn’t know anything about who was doing what at the time. I was in the fields plowing. We had no social standing with the white people in the area, so I couldn’t tell what was going on really to be honest with you. (King Biscuit Time) did good for me ’cause I enjoyed it.
“I had no way of knowing (what kind of impact crossover had on the industry) ’cause I only had a chance to hear music electrified Saturday when I went to town. During that time, what can I say? I was just a plow hand if you will. John Lee Hooker was playing when I was plowing. I didn’t have a chance to really know too much about what was really going on till I went to Memphis. Then I had a chance to kind of hear the radio every day other than just 12:15 (on King Biscuit Time) when I came out of the fields.
“So, when people would come up and some of ’em would ask if I would play a blues, I knew some, and some I pretended, but I sang blues, and I could sing pretty good. They would always tip me. The way the economy was where I lived at the time driving tractor was one of the highest paying jobs for farm hands, and they paid $22.50 a week. So, when I’d go to town and sit on the street corner and play some time, make $50 or $60. I have made as high as $100 in one evening.
“Now, you see why I’m a blues singer? When I used to sit on the street corners in Indianola, I would start off playing gospel songs. People would pass me and listen a little bit to see what they sound like. That’s what people did to me, and when I was playing my gospel song which is what I wanted to do, they would always praise me highly, but they never would tip me.”
By 1949 King was performing in chitlin circuit clubs and had a 15-minute program on Memphis’ WDIA radio station where he played everything from Bing Crosby to Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“In ’49 I used to play this place in Twist, Arkansas, and it used to get quite cold. So they would take something like a big garbage pail, sit it in the middle of the dance floor and half fill it with kerosene and people would usually dance around it and never disturb it, but one night two guys started to fighting, and one knocked the other one over on this container. When they did, it was already burning, so it looked like a river of fire.
“So everybody started running for the door including B. B. King. When I got on the outside, I realized I’d left my guitar so I went back for it, and when I did, the building was a wooden building and was burning very fast, so it started to collapse around me, and I almost lost my life trying to save my guitar.
“The next morning we discovered these two guys that were fighting were fighting about a lady that worked in the nightclub. I never did meet her, but I learned that her name was Lucille. I named my guitar Lucille to remind me never to do a thing like that again. So, that’s how it came about. From ’49 to now I’ve been playing – this is my 16th of the Lucille models.”
Grammy Award winning blues man Long John Hunter was inspired to start his own career in 1953 by a B.B. King performance. “Somebody said. ‘Are you ready for the man?’ People started screamin’ and hollerin’, and I stood there. These people was having such a fit, and he was real small then. He didn’t weigh over 110 lbs. at the most and, man, he came out of that little old dressing room like that at the Raven Club, and women went to throwin’ their underwear. I’d never seen nothin’ like that, and, man, I said, ‘Good God all mighty, what kind of man is this?’ And they didn’t slow down ’cuz they done took off all of their underclothes and just throwin’ everything they had.
“Something just told me, ‘Man, if this man is that powerful, there must be a spot in this mess for me, and that’s what made me know I wanted to be a musician to see all them people screamin’ and hollerin’ when he played a few notes on that guitar, good God, all mighty.’ Everyone just went crazy in there, and this was on a Wednesday night.”
King’s 1965 recording of Live at the Regal documented the call and response phenomenon in African American blues that made the audience part of the performance. Recorded in November,1964, at the Regal Theatre, Chicago’s then equivalent to Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in front of an all-black audience, the album captured a set of B. B. King chitlin club standards including “Every Day I Have The Blues,” “It’s My Own Fault” and “How Blue Can You Get,” all very familiar to the adoring crowd. Key phrases in his repertoire like “Sweet little angel, I love the way she spreads her wings” triggered fundamental images in the crowd’s memory banks. King played on his fans’ emotional response to these powerful images like a Baptist preacher arousing his flock in outbursts that became a part of the song.
As different as a black fundamentalist church service is from a white church service but just as deeply emotional, the lyric concerns a sweet little angel, B. B.’s lover, spreading her wings, a double entendre, setting off imagery of her spreading her legs as they make love. Accented by King’s powerfully erotic guitar sting, the song sent his fans into the kind of frenzy that rock bands would later try to duplicate with young white audiences, but the African Americans in his flock had a much more deeply fundamental connection to this kind of mental stimulation.
The words of field hollers in times of slavery were code words that allowed slaves to communicate secretly about escaping the slave master, and the words of gospel songs likewise “called” for a level of religious fervor that prompted a “response” of speaking in tongues, hence the “call and response.” The give and take between the artist and the performer whipped both into a spiraling emotional crescendo unmatched by any other musical experience in western music. Live at The Regal a half century later is considered the single most powerful example of this phenomenon rarely duplicated in succeeding decades as King’s audience became increasingly white. King himself never considered it one of his favorites. “No, no it’s not,” he said in 2008, “but I learned when the critics say something positive, I just smile and say thank you.”
As iconic as King is today, he was one of the last of the post-war electric blues artists to cross over to a young mass audience. And even early in his career he admits his black audience was older than that for other African American hit makers like James Brown and Jackie Wilson. In the mid-60s, a student in Harvard Square could find Chess records by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Vee Jay records by Jimmy Reed and Excello records by Slim Harpo in The Harvard Coop. Acoustic blues records by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy were available in the folk bins, but to score a B. B. King LP on ABC Paramount you had to go to Skippy White’s Record Store in “The Combat Zone” in downtown Boston.
Decades later he told one fan who was bragging about a radio station that played his music every Saturday night after midnight that he, King, wasn’t a vampire, and why weren’t they playing his records during the day? It’s a classic argument. If blues is so influential to rock artists like The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and other rockers, how come The King of the Blues makes a tiny fraction of what they do? How come King’s biggest selling album and his only multi-million chart success is 2000’s Riding with The King shared with Eric Clapton who’s had scores of million sellers?
“I never thought of crossing over,” he told me in 1996. “That was never my thing. When they use the word crossover that’s for the people that know about this business better than I do. For me, I thought from (one of his first hits) “Three O’ Clock Blues,” when you make a good record, it’s just that, with no politics in it. Just a good record.
“I remember Eric Clapton saying to me that he had listened to me and learned some things, but he never said that I’m the one that influenced him.” On a video shown at the B. B. King Museum Clapton says, “It was one of the great moments of my life meeting B. B. and being able to say that I could consider myself as his friend.” King continues, “I heard John Lennon was being interviewed, and the person asked him what he’d like to do, and he said, “Play guitar like B. B. King.” Well, I read that. He didn’t tell me that. I would be boastful and belligerent to say, ‘Yeah, taught ’em all. I’m the one.’ That wouldn’t be right at all.”
King’s biggest charting hit was his Grammy-winning “The Thrill Is Gone” which went to number 15 in 1970 . “‘The Thrill Is Gone’ came out at the right time,” he would say simply, “and I had a producer that knew about producing and knew how to contact people about getting it played. His name was Bill Szyzmczyk. The record company was ready at the time which was ABC. Then, of course, actually my manager Sid Seidenberg I had a good agent in the promotion of it. So it just seemed – and a good band. Everybody at the time just seemed right for what I was doing and a little talent was there.
“I don’t do it every night,” he said of “The Thrill Is Gone” in 1994. “Sometimes I forget, but usually I’m reminded, and the two songs that have really been the powerhouse for me, one was ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ and the other one is the one I did (in 1988) with U2 called ‘When Love Comes to Town.’ I asked them to write a song for me. They turned me on to a whole new audience. Without a doubt, they are some of the most talented people I have ever worked with, some of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with and some of the richest people I’ve ever worked with. They are just nice people. I wish we had more of them.”
He may not have looked to become a crossover hit, but he was always aware of the rock stars. “Someone was interviewing John Lennon one night, and I was watching it on TV. The interviewer was asking him what he would like to do, and he said, “Play guitar like B. B. King.” I almost fell out of my chair. The Beatles was the most popular group in the world, and for him to say that? Oh, God! I couldn’t believe it. But funny thing, it didn’t swell my head, but I said, ‘Well, I’d better tighten it up here and do what I should do, you know something? Whatever I’m doing, I’d better tighten it up,’ and I started doing that because I didn’t think anybody was really paying attention to it, and today when I sit back and listen myself, I’ve never made a perfect record, but I think there’s some good work in each one of them.”
B. B. King earned 15 Grammys in his career and was inducted in both the Blues Hall of Fame and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has a Sirius/XM channel named after him, an honor he shares with Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and the Grateful Dead. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at No. 6 on its 2011 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Bill Dahl writing in the AllMusic Guide calls him “without a doubt the single most important electric guitarist of the last half century.”
King was friends with Presidents Clinton, both Bushes, and Obama. He has honorary doctorates from Yale University, Berklee College of Music, Rhodes College of Memphis, Brown University and holds the National Award of Distinction from the University of Mississippi. He won the Blues Foundation’s Entertainer of the Year award so many times, they renamed it the B.B. King Entertainer of The Year and made him ineligible to win. There are eight B. B. King Blues Clubs: two in Los Angeles, and one each in Memphis, New York City, Foxwood Casino in Connecticut, West Palm Beach, Las Vegas, and Orlando. His museum opened in Indianola, Mississippi in 2008.
As humble and unconcerned about crossover as he was, he could never quite reconcile his position relative to the rock stars who idolized him. A simple question about his 2008 Chicago Blues Festival appearance illustrates the case. “They’re finding out how many people they had (at the festival), but God, I played there once eight or 10 years ago, and the paper said the next day we had 250,000, and I was happy, but I don’t take no pat on the back for it because it was free (laugh). It’s free to walk in. I ain’t did nuthin’ big (laugh). If that was the Rolling Stones or Bono or U2 or some of those people, it’d be different. But a free walk-in? I can’t pat myself on the back for that.
“I don’t have to do it,” he said about touring. “I’m doing it because, for one thing, it’s something I like. It’s having a job that you like. Another thing is, who cares? You know what I mean? So, usually if I keep my band working, and we go from place to place, we still keeps the name B. B. King out there. We don’t get it any other way.
“I think a man should do what makes him happy, what pleases him to do as long as it’s not hurting anyone else. As long as people come to see him, why not? Why should we take that away from him? That’s one of the things that I’m so happy about in my job. I did not have to retire at 65, and I feel this way about it. As long as my health is good – well, I’m a diabetic – but I mean as long as I can get around and take care of myself and the people still buy my CDs or come out to a concert, why stop if I don’t want to?”
King gave serious thought to how he wanted to be remembered. “I was down to my hometown last week, all last week, and I found the gravesite that I’d like to be buried in, and I hope they’ll remember that. Keep my grave clean (reference to the Blind Lemon Jefferson song “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”) I’d love for people that love me or think well of me to be able to come to Indianola, Mississippi and see it. Because I live in Las Vegas I thought once about being cremated. Then, I thought about that some more and said, ‘Oh, no. If there’s any such thing about coming back again, I want all my parts with me. (chuckle) Yeah, I ain’t gonna take that chance. So, bury me. Put it all together. (Laugh) I don’t wanna be missing some of the vital parts.
“They got the museum. So, I would like for those that love me and care about me to come out and people keep my grave kept clean, so people can see my name and see where I’m laid out. I’d like to be available. I’d like to be able to go out to where I’ve heard Blind Lemon is buried and I’ve heard where Robert Johnson is buried, but I’ve never seen ’em. So, I’d like to be available to the people that have kept me all these years. I’d just love to be available for them. I don’t know where my old friend Robert Lockwood Jr. is buried. There’s so many I don’t know. So, I feel a lot of people don’t either. So, I’d like to be somewhere where people that love me could see me and the ones that are inquisitive could find me.
“I just want you to know one thing. Just remember I said I was no saint, but I didn’t do anything I’m ashamed of today. That’s one thing I can say if God’s willing. I never did anything I was ashamed of. Never! Of course, I did some things I wouldn’t let you see me do, but I wasn’t ashamed to do it.”
Of all the artists I’ve interviewed, I don’t think I’ve ever heard any say anything but the nicest things about The King. “They just didn’t catch me,” said B.B. “I haven’t had any halos on my head.”