ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, OCT. 31, 2002
By Steve Newton
Trying to reach blues legend B.B. King at his Arkansas hotel takes some doing. Even when you have the phone number of the hotel, the room he’s in, and a predetermined time to call, you can’t argue with a busy signal. After 30 minutes of trying, I track down King’s road manager and ask what’s up, and he explains that the interview before mine must be running overtime.
“He likes to talk,” explains the road manager casually, “you know that.”
Actually, I didn’t, but it instantly makes sense. For the past 50 years or so, B.B. King has been establishing himself as one of the most vocal advocates of the blues. Whether it’s giving a journalist that extra half-hour of quotes, or patiently signing autographs for fans gathered at his dressing-room door, King always goes the extra mile. And as a touring musician who’s been noted for performing 300-plus shows a year, he’s covered more miles than almost any entertainer alive today. Unlike most blues players, who have to struggle madly for their art, King could easily abandon the road, retire, and live well until his time is done. But there’s something in the 77-year-old guitarist-vocalist that won’t let him quit.
“I just love to play!” he says, when I finally get through to him at the Radisson Hotel Fayetteville, where he’s booked under the unlikely pseudonym of Pump Pagrisson. “I love to play and I like to take the music around. And it started a long time ago. We don’t get airplay in the blues like rock ’n’ roll or rap, so I learned that when I went places, people would hear it, my record sales would go up, and my audience would be bigger the next time. So I’ve gone to 90 different countries around the world doing that. You know, we’ve had two or three superstars in blues—like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray—but even they don’t get the play today. So maybe you can see why I still [tour].
“Yes, I could have retired when I was 65,” he continues, “and could have lived comfortably from them on—but that’s not the point. The point now is because I love to play, and, well… I’ve got the best band I’ve ever had, and I also like to keep them workin’. We make bills, so they got to be paid.”
If ever there was an example of the hard-working, bill-paying bluesman, King is it. Although recently he’s cut down his gruelling concert schedule to about 250 gigs a year, that still seems like a lot of work for a guy pushing 80. “Well, yeah,” he ponders, “but if you have an office, you go to your office every day, Monday through Friday, I’ll bet. That’s the same thing with me. Each day I like goin’ to my office!”
Local blues fans who’ve followed King’s career have seen his “office” take the form of many different venues over the years. In the early ’80s he was playing two shows a night at the intimate Plazzazz Showroom in North Van; two years ago the B.B. King Blues Festival was booked into the cavernous GM Place. But for the ex-tractor driver from Indianola, Mississippi—whose 10-piece band plays the opulent Orpheum on Sunday (November 3)—he’d be just as happy playing a tar-paper shack in Mississippi.
“You see,” he relates, “when my career started, where I used to live, we had no electricity. So there was no place to play but small places—there wasn’t no coliseums and auditoriums and things of that sort. So playin’ small places doesn’t bother me at all, ’cause that’s all I played till I was around 25.”
King’s unrelenting desire to play wherever people would have him has led to a storybook career that’s included platinum records, honorary doctorates, countless awards, and, in 1987, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As a former plantation worker, King knows better than most how much the moneymaking world of rock owes to the pioneers of American blues music. “Rock ’n’ roll wasn’t just created,” he points out. “It had to have a reason, and it came from something. And would you believe it or not, many of the songs that the great rock ’n’ rollers played are blues! They call it rock ’n’ roll, but it’s dear old blues. Even the King himself, Elvis Presley, played so many black tunes, and some of his most popular ones were written by blacks. Like two or three of his tunes came from a guy named Big Boy Crudup.”
Presley may have been the first white rocker to spread the gospel of the blues to a wide audience, but right behind him were the Rolling Stones, whose name itself evolved from a Muddy Waters tune. King opened for them on their historic 1969 tour of America, and in his recent book, Blues Odyssey, Stones bassist Bill Wyman recalls the impression the guitarist had on him. “The thing that always stunned me about his playing was the way he would hammer it out and then just go down to a whisper,” writes Wyman, whose recollection causes the modest King to reply: “I didn’t even know he remembers me!”
The literature of rock guitar has always overflowed with compliments from the top stars regarding King’s precise, vocal-like string bends and left-hand vibrato. Everyone from Eric Clapton to Eddie Van Halen has cited his performance on the landmark 1964 album, Live at the Regal, as hugely influential, although King makes no effort to pinpoint what might have attracted the guitar heroes of today to his playing style. “I really don’t know,” he says. “They never told me.”
Clapton did get the opportunity to voice his appreciation of King’s talent when the two collaborated on 2000’s Running With the King, which won the Grammy last year for best traditional blues album. In the CD’s liner notes, both guitarists rave about how the project was a long-unfulfilled dream come true. The question is: why did it take so long for them to make it happen? “Well, for one thing,” notes King, “we were both with different companies, and these conglomerates are quite, oh, selfish, I guess—they don’t like to let the artists go and do things on other labels. And I think that’s the way our companies were; they weren’t too particular about sharin’ each of us with anyone else. Then our managers were finally able to convince them that it would be a good idea to do.
“But Clapton and I have been friends since we first met back in the ’60s,” King continues. “I’ve always wanted to do something with him, but it’s like, you don’t ask friends to do things all the time—because you’re friends, you know what I mean? But I always wanted to, and when I heard him tell [TV’s] Larry King that he would like to do something with me, man, I was on cloud nine.”
Blues-guitar fans had reason to rejoice as well, once Clapton and King started trading licks on a well-chosen batch of King originals, plus covers such as Isaac Hayes’s “Hold On I’m Coming” and the John Hiatt–penned title track. One of the disc’s high points was the smouldering version of King’s very first hit, “Three O’Clock Blues”, which he originally recorded in 1952. So did King resuscitate that old gem in hopes of giving the project the feeling that he’d come full circle or something?
“All of it was [Clapton’s] idea,” he says. “I didn’t pick any songs. I had told him that I wanted him to pick the songs, the musicians, and the studio—and I also told him, though, that if he picked something that I didn’t like, we’d talk about it. But he only picked two things that I didn’t like. One of the songs that I didn’t want to do was [Johnny Mercer’s] ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, but he, um…ha-ha—he’s a very… Oh, I don’t know how to say it… But he’s like my girlfriend—he can persuade me to do anything he wants. So he would say to me, ‘B, I listened to it, and I can hear you doin’ it, so why don’t you try it?’ And when I did try it, it didn’t sound so bad after all.”
Another Clapton suggestion that didn’t go over well with King at first was Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway”. Clapton had previously covered that 12-bar blues stomp in 1970, on Layla & Assorted Love Songs. “This time Eric wanted to do it with acoustic guitars,” King reveals, “and I didn’t want to do that. But like I said, he knows how to get to me.”
The cover photo for Running With the King pictures a grinning Clapton at the wheel of a vintage black Cadillac, his trusty Strat beside him in the front passenger seat, with King lounging in the back, keeping company with his legendary six-string, Lucille. It’s actually the 16th Lucille that King has owned, the original having been ripped off way back around 1950. “I think the people that stole it didn’t know what they had,” says King, still sounding slightly sad about the loss of his prized instrument. “I offered up to $10,000 just to give it back, but they never did.” Now he has his own line of signature-model guitars built by Gibson, so anyone with enough cash can pick up a Lucille of their own. Of course, it’s not gonna sound like B.B.’s, ’cause you just can’t buy that magic touch.
“It feels good to me,” says King of his beautiful black, gold-plated, pearl-inlaid Gibson. “I’m a pretty big guy, and it’s not so bulky to hold against me. I don’t know, it just seems to fit. It’s like you might ask somebody why they like Volkswagens, or Fords, or Chevrolets. It’s because there’s something about ’em that seems to do what you want.”
King followed Running With the King with last year’s A Christmas Celebration of Hope, which featured bluesy versions of traditional holiday tunes, with proceeds to City of Hope, a biomedical research and treatment centre that helps people with cancer, HIV/AIDS, and diabetes (which King suffers from). His varied musical undertakings also include an album with swing-jazz vocalist Dianne Schuur and a CD of light classics with Luciano Pavarotti. And he’s a little cagey about what’s in store for his next album. “Well, the plans I have, I can’t tell you about it,” he teases, “because if I do you’ll tell somebody else and they’ll beat me to it—and probably do it better than I.”
Not likely. The King of the Blues hasn’t enjoyed the most enduring career in the modern history of the blues by being second best. So what would he say is the secret to his continued success, anyway? “Well, first I’d say I’ve got one of the best agencies that books me, Associated Bookin’. And I’ve got one of the best record companies that makes and distributes my records, MCA. And I’ve got one of the best managers ever, and one of the best bands I’ve ever had. And a little talent.”
Yeah, sure, B. Just a little. And I suppose the next thing you’ll try telling me is that the thrill is gone.