By Steve Newton
On January 21, 1984, 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.
To hear the full audio of my 1984 interview with B.B. King subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 300 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:
Dave Martone, 2020
Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, 2006
Joss Stone, 2012
Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest, 2005
Jack Blades of Night Ranger, 1984
Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard, 1992
Colin James, 1995
Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
Tom Cochrane of Red Rider, 1983
Ed Roland of Collective Soul, 1995
Taj Mahal, 2001
Tom Wilson of Junkhouse, 1995
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
Roger Glover, 1985
Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
Steve Hackett from Genesis, 1993
Grace Potter, 2008
Buddy Guy, 1993
Steve Lynch of Autograph, 1985
Don Wilson of the Ventures, 1997
Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, 1998
Trevor Rabin of Yes, 1984
Albert Lee, 1986
Yngwie Malmsteen, 1985
Robert Cray, 1996
Tony Carey, 1984
Ian Hunter, 1988
Kate Bush, 1985
David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, 1984
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1996
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
Colin Linden, 1993
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Roy Buchanan, 1988
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Edgar Winter, 2005
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Randy Hansen, 2001
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joe Satriani, 1990
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, 1998
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
Gary Moore, 1984
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001
…with hundreds more to come