By Steve Newton
Thirty years ago today B.B. King was in the midst of a two-week stand at the Plazazz Showroom in North Vancouver, and I got the thrill of my blues-loving life when I sat down with him in his hotel room and asked him a bunch of questions.
Some of them were pretty lame.
But man was he nice.
When did you first encounter music?
I really don’t know. When I grew up I heard it all around me, people singing and playing. When I started to want to play, I was eight or nine years old, and I got my first guitar when I was about 12.
What made you choose guitar?
It was the only thing available. In the area where we lived there were no pianos and no organs, except in church. No private homes had them because they couldn’t afford them. Saxophones and trumpets and things of that sort were way out because, where we lived, there were no music stores. In fact the school I went to had no music at all. None.
Where did you live?
I am from Indianola, Mississippi, heart of the Mississippi Delta. The nearest music store would have been Greenville, Mississippi, which was 25 miles from us. To try and get any other instrument would have cost much more money than I would have ever been able to afford anyway, so the only thing around to play was guitar or harmonica.
When did you begin playing professionally?
When I was 18 I started to feel that I would try and make a living at it.
Had you played in public before that?
Well yeah, singing in quartets and playing on street corners. On a Saturday after work I would go to any of the little towns within 12 or 15 miles and sit on the corners and play. But that was only on Saturday evening, ’cause weekdays–Monday through Saturday noon–I had to work on the plantation.
What did your family think of you playing the blues when you started?
Well, they didn’t really like it, because that’s far from the gospel music that they were teachin’ me. So I never did sing and play blues around the house at that time. I was living with my aunt, and they were very religious, and they didn’t allow it. You just couldn’t play it.
When you started entertaining, did you think of yourself mainly as a singer as opposed to a guitar player?
Well, yes. I never thought of being able to really play guitar until people started to talk about it. And then everybody was talking about my playing instead of my singing, so I started to try to accept the fact that I was a blues guitar player. Then I thought I was pretty good–till I started hearing people like T-Bone Walker and a few others. When I heard them I found that I was really not a guitar player–I was just a guy trying to play.
Have the attitudes of black people toward the blues changed over the years?
Somewhat. Not enough, I don’t think. This is my personal opinion. I don’t think that a lot of the young black people have been able to really get into it, as I hope they will in the future. They have been somewhat reluctant to get into it because it seems to bring back a lot of memories which they don’t care to remember.
In some cases I can understand how they must feel about it, but my argument is that there’s no one around that doesn’t have some dirty clothes in the closet. And what has been, everybody knows is history. So the point is, things that you didn’t like, you work hard to keep from happening again. Things that you do like, you work hard to keep going. I think that since Roots we’ve started to see a difference in the young blacks in America.
Do you think the success of people like Michael Jackson has helped curb prejudice in music?
Well, Michael Jackson has helped a lot of people, and I think everybody in music feels it. Because what he’s done, in a lot of cases, hasn’t been done before–as far as the hits and all that. And this has given the music industry a boost. So not only did it help blacks, it helped the music industry as a whole.
I understand you’ve got an enormous record collection.
I had. I donated it to the University of Mississippi. Now I’m starting to build another one.
How many records did you have, approximately?
About twenty-thousand, something like that. I had some that were very rare–some people that you’d probably never think of as playing blues. For instance, a cowboy called Gene Autrey–who’s a very wealthy guy in the States today–I had a record by him called TV Blues that was made on Columbia 40 years ago.
And believe it or not I had a 78 by Nat King Cole where he sings the blues. And I had blues on Bing Crosby. I had blues on many singers that most people today only know as a pop or jazz artist.
What do you prefer to listen to nowadays in your spare time?
I’m very moody. I like music. I like jazz, I like rock, I like soul, I like gospel, and I like classics. But the one thing that I can listen to all the time is big string orchestras playing familiar melodies; they may play the Beatles’ songbook or any of the top tunes of the day.
But other than that sometimes I may want nothing but jazz, or nothing but blues, nothing but rock or soul. It just depends on whatever mood I’m in. ‘Cause I’ve never heard anybody play that didn’t play something I liked. Musically everybody plays something I like.
You never sing and play guitar at the same time. Why not?
Can’t concentrate. I quite often say I’ve got “stupid fingers”. My fingers don’t seem to accompany my singing. I can’t seem to play the proper chords and sing at the same time, so generally when I play I’m singing in my mind. And when I sing my guitar is just numb.
I see many people who can play those beautiful chords and sing along with them, and I wish I could. But ever since I’ve been in show business, when I work with other bands they always feature me–so I’ve always been a lead guitarist, never rhythm. And the few times when I’ve tried to play rhythm, someone would say, “Oh God, we don’t want to hear that. Why don’t you play something?” Like some of the tunes I’ve made popular.
So I never had a chance. And generally I’m very lazy. I’ll never practice like other people say they do. Physically I’ll rarely do it, but mentally I’ll practice every day. Like if I played something last night that kinda screwed me up I’ll say, “God, why did I do that?” and I’ll think about it in my head and straighten it out. But other than that, I’m very lazy.
But you play pretty well every night!
Last year I did 320 dates, so that’s pretty near every night. My group and I have worked on an average of 300 days a year for the last 10 or 15 years. In fact in ’56 I did 342 one-nighters.
Do you ever get tired of the road?
Not actually get tired of the road, but I’ve started to get tired of doing it as much as I’m doing it. I don’t ever want to stop, as long as people support me and as long as they seem to like what I do. Unless my health gets bad, I’d like to be out–but not 300 days a year.
Do you like making records as well?
Well, yeah. I would like very much to spend some time making a record. I’ve never had more than 10 to 14 days to make an album. Never. A lot of groups and a lot of people I know stay in the studio for months. Man, I’d welcome one month to do just exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve never done it yet, but I intend to. I do intend to.
The headline of your opening night in a local paper reads “King of the Blues”. When people call you that, does it make you feel obligated in any way?
I’ve always felt that, since I’ve been promoted or pushed out as one of the leaders in this field, there was an obligation to go as far as I can go. Because there are young people, or people who haven’t been as successful popularity-wise as I have been, and I feel that I owe it to them. Not only do I owe it to them, but to the fans who like this kind of music. And then, most of all, I owe it to myself.
If you had to choose just one person, who would be your “King of the Blues”?
That would be hard, because every person that I’ve listened to is kind of unique in his own way–some of the idols as well as some of the contemporaries today.
Thinking in terms of Blind Lemon, well Blind Lemon to me was the giant in what he did. But then on the other hand, so was Lonnie Johnson–both blues players, both singers. And then there was Charlie Christian, a jazz guitarist. There was Django Reinhardt, another jazz guitarist–a Frenchman jazz guitarist. Each one to me had something that I could feel from the other, but neither one played alike!
Then later on there was other people like T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, and Lowell Fulson–I could just go on down the line. Memphis Slim. Many, many people that played blues–as well as others that played jazz–that was something I could feel, but neither one of them sounded alike. So it’s hard for me say who is, or would have been, or are at the top–even today. When people call me “King of the Blues”, well… I think I’m good, but I think there are other people just as good, and if not better.
You’ve been quoted as saying that “playing the guitar is like telling the truth.”
Well, yes. And what I meant by that is, if a person tells the truth, you can wake them up at any time and they will say the same thing because it is the truth. But if he lied, he don’t know what he said or how he said it. When I play the guitar, I play what I feel. So if you play what you feel, that to me is honesty. You play and you put you in it.
Do you ever have trouble telling the truth when you’re playing?
I have trouble trying to express my ideas sometimes, yes, but I don’t have trouble playing. It’s like having a piano in your room. Everybody who plays the piano is going to sound differently, and that’s because their touch is different. Well, it’s the same thing with guitar. Every time I touch it, I touch it the way I feel it. And if it’s Pat Metheny or George Benson or Lightnin’ Hopkins or Muddy Waters, you’re gonna know it’s them every time.