For more than half a century, Riley B. King – better known as B.B. King – has defined the blues for a worldwide audience. Since he started recording in the 1940s, he has released over 50 albums, many of them time-honored classics.
Mississippi-born King played on street corners for dimes in his youth, sometimes playing in as many as four towns a night. In 1947, he hitchhiked to Memphis , TN , to pursue his music career and the rest, as they say, is blues history.
Blues legends B.B. King and Buddy Guy took the blues to a higher level on January 2 at hard Rock Live in Hollywood. As you could imagine, these two blues legends gave a performance that will long be remembered. After the show, I had the great opportunity to meet B.B. King. Have I never met such a kind and gentle soul. He spoke with me and my father for nearly fifty minutes, and signed several autographs including a CD and a red electric guitar. Truly a great man.
B.B. King took some time from his current tour schedule to answer a few questions.
Q: When did you first become interested in the guitar?
When I was a very small boy, my mother used to take me to church, and the pastor in church played the guitar. That made me want to play it, because I wanted to be like him. I’m not a fast learner. I’m very, very slow. I’m still learning. My first guitar was a little red Stella guitar. It cost me $15, and I was making $15 a month at the time. My boss bought the guitar for me, and allowed me to pay it off.
Q: Who were some of your earliest musical influences?
One was a guy called Lonnie Johnson, who played acoustic guitar and sang blues. Another was Lemon Jefferson. I was told Lemon Jefferson was born blind because everyone called him Blind Lemon. Both of those played acoustic guitars and sang blues. Then I heard of a jazz guitarist called Charlie Christian and it was electrical. And man, did I like that! Another one was a French gypsy, a guy called Django Reinhart; also was playing acoustic guitar, but he had an amplifier through a microphone. And boy was that good. And one I still have with me on my MP3 today is T-Bone Walker. He played the electric guitar; single-string, mostly blues. Had the big fat chords when you hit them, and I liked that. So those five have been my major influences. I could never play like any of them. I tried many times, but not even today I couldn’t play like them.
Q: Were some of your early recordings done at the infamous Sun Records in Memphis?
I was trying to get into the business. I thought I was good enough as a singer and a player to record. And you know, in Mississippi we didn’t even have music stores, or a music store. But I’d heard that in Memphis they had a recording studio; that was one of the reasons I went. It was called Sam Phillips. But I never recorded for him, I recorded in his studio. But I never did play for him.
Q: Of all the guitars in the world, why do you choose to play the Gibson guitar exclusively?
It has a long, thick neck on it. I’ve got big fat hands and I’m a big guy. During the early years, it was hard to get a good guitar. It was really hard. I hear people talk about today its hard to find a good guitar, but today guitars are like insects to me, there’s so many of them. At that time, I couldn’t make enough money to buy one. I did try many kinds. Whoever designed the Gibson guitars in the beginning did a really good job. One of the things I like about it is if the neck stops to warp – if I take my hand and my hand is like that (demonstrates), but after awhile it starts to do this – the guitar neck does. Well, they put a rod in the Gibson guitar. And when it starts to bend a little bit, there’s a little wrench you have that you can tighten it and it straightens it back out again. That’s another thing I like about it. If you notice my fingers, I don’t have big corns on them like some other people ‘cause I keep the action pretty close to the frets.
Q: Are you critical, at all of your own playing?
Yeah. In the early years, you’d go into a little juke joint and you’d play. Somebody else would come in who would play better than you, and you don’t come back. They’re finished with you. I really think I’m kind of like that today; I’m never any better than my last concert. And I make mistakes nightly. But the only part that’s pretty good is when you make a mistake and cover it up without anybody else catching you. That’s the smooth part of it. I’ve got a band, some guys have been with me up to 26 years and when I make mistakes I feel so ashamed, I don’t want them to catch me. The hard part of practicing; is trying to do the same thing you did when you don’t know you were doing it ‘til you hear it and try to cover it up where they don’t know. Someone might say, “Oh, B.B, you got your new lick, huh? How’d you do that?” “Oh I don’t know.” Cause I don’t know what I was doing in the first place.
Q: The blues and the guitar are a natural fit, but you could pretty much play just about anything on a guitar, right?
I’ve heard people play classical music on a harp but then I’ve heard guys play blues on them too. So it’s usually the person and the instrument. I’ll give you an example: you can have an old piano sitting over in the corner. Before Ray (Charles) died, if he played he sound like Ray. Billy Joel would sound like Billy Joel, Sir Elton John would sound like himself. You put in it what comes out of you. That makes the difference in the sound, ‘cause I know I can take your guitar here or anybody’s, and I will sound like myself. Like a person singing; you learn to sing the way you want to. Now you may try to mimic somebody else, but if allowed to do your own thing, you’re gonna sound like you.
Q: What do you think it is that draws people to the electric guitar?
I don’t know. Maybe this is the age of guitar. In fact, some time ago, it used to be the saxophone. Big bands featured saxophones. People like Benny Goodman featured the clarinet. But it wasn’t too many that masters the clarinet but there were quite a few people that seemed to master the saxophone. Then it was the piano. Today, nearly even guitarist you find plays well – his way. And maybe that’s it.
Q: Do you think the blues has lost it’s appeal to black people. Does it still resonate with them?
BB: Back when I was a kid, there was no radio stations that played black music or music by black people. Jazz, for example, started after blues had been out for a very long time, and the one person that I think of that may have played-at least he was popular was Louis Armstrong, and Louis did play blues at the time. In fact, at the beginning, most all of the major black stars played blues. Nat Cole played blues. Ella Fitzgerald. And Count Basie. Duke Ellington. I could mention alot of them that did that. But alot of them never did stop. They just did more of the other things where they could make money. They never really stopped. The blues players that I consider to really be blues players, for example, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson. My idols: Lonnie Johnson and Lemon Jefferson, oh God, and then the 40s and 50s, Louis Jordan, and Big Boy Crudup. Lightning Hopkins, these people, they was known by some white people but white people really didn’t get a chance to hear them as they do music today. And the 50s, you had the Motown sound which was very popular with white people. And popular with blacks too, but very popular with white people because the jobs and the places to play and the jobs was plentiful. White people could afford to pay them to come to certain functions that blacks did not, so the Motown sound was very popular with blacks but more so with the whites. At that time rock and roll was starting, so rock and roll when it started there was no place for blues players to come in. If you didn’t go in to the rock and roll side of it, you didn’t get no work in the major places to play so it’s never been to my knowledge a lot of black blues players. not alot of em. And of course today, yes, you got white kids that’s really playin and supportin blues. and I’m so glad, I’m so glad because its opened up so many places, so many doors have been opened for blues players like myself. but you can almost count the blues players that was really there, that shall we say tried to make a living with blues music. I can pretty near name them on both hands. But some of those learned to do rock and roll or soul music later, and the ones that was able to do that crossover, they went into it because that’s where the money was. Blues players didn’t make no money. And then alot of times there was no place to play. Nobody would hire you. A few of us that stuck with it- I’m one, Bobby Bland, Little Milton, oh, I could name you quite a few, but the ones that I’m namin are still with it.
Q: How did you get by the rough times? What was your motivation?
BB: Well I felt as I did, growing up in the South, I had a teacher. He still lives. He’s 100 years old now and he used to tell us that life wouldn’t always be as it were, that eventually times would change because people would change. He told me that when I was about 10 or 12. Several things he told me that I remember today as if he was just telling me. Back when I was going to school we didn’t have buses to ride. We lived in the country. We had to walk. We had to walk about 5 miles a day to school. So he told me then that it wouldn’t be like that all the time. Eventually we would have school buses like everybody else and in most cases be riding with other children. And you know he was right
Q: You have played and recorded with Eric Clapton, considered to be one of the world’s best guitarist. What are your thoughts of him?
I think Eric is number one. He’s the number one rock and roll guitarist in the world. And he plays blues better than most of us. That’s what I think of him.
For those of you planning a trip to the South, you will be serving yourself well by visiting the B.B. King Museum. The B. B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center is located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta on US Highway 82 between Greenwood and Greenville, not far from the famous Crossroads at Clarksdale. It opened in mid-September 2008 and built to honor the life and music of one of the most accomplished musicians of our time, the museum serves as a vital resource to the State of Mississippi and the City of Indianola. The museum’s exhibits and educational programs serve to build bridges between the community and the world while preserving the rich cultural and musical heritage of the Mississippi Delta.
The life of B.B. King provides the backdrop for the Museum to share the rich cultural heritage of the Mississippi Delta. Through an authentic presentation of music, art, artifacts and video, along with our educational programming, the Museum honors its namesake as an internationally renowned and influential musician, celebrates Delta blues music heritage and the local culture, encourages and inspires young artists and musicians, and enriches the lives of Delta youth and all who visit the museum campus.
For more information about B.B. King, log on to his website at www.bbking.com