An interview with B.B. King
By Steven Sharp
Can you describe a typical day on the road for you right now?
A typical day on the road today, I was up this mornin' at 4:30, packin' and loadin' the bus at 5, leavin' St. Louis at 6, drivin' from St. Louis to ... where we are, and goin' to bed. Then, wake up and come to work, as I just have. That's a typical day. And then talkin' to people like yourself.
How many one-nighters do you do a year?
Oh, we've cut down now. We had been averagin' about 300, but now we've cut down to concerts, and we average about 250 concerts a year.
You've been doing this for almost 50 years. How do you stay motivated?
Well, the first thing, I like to play, love to play — enjoy it. Secondly, I have found that the blues players, blues musicians, had a hard time economically makin' it, for some reason. We've always been at the bottom of, as I call it, the totem pole. We never made money. In fact, until a couple of years ago, I would've gladly worked a week for what some of my friends in rock 'n' roll or in soul music would make in one day. I'd work a week for it, happily, because we just didn't get paid.
I remember quite often gettin' write-ups by critics, sayin', for example, I was in, I think, some part of North Dakota once and I played up there at this symphony hall and it was sold out and the critic said the next day, he said, "Well, it was nice, but playin' in the symphony hall and not a dirt floor, was it really B.B. King blues?" And I was insulted, very insulted. Why shouldn't I play symphony hall? Why shouldn't I play anywhere anybody else play? And that's been one of my main reasons for tryin' to go. So, I think what I'm tryin' to say, to tell you why I do so much of it, I've found that, as I've traveled around the world, when I would play a place, I always had press that I never got when I didn't go different places. So the more I would travel, the more press I would get and I would notice that it would seem to stimulate the sales of my records and that, in itself, not only helped me, but helped the others that followed me.
Even today, today blues is more popular than it's ever been. Now don't get me wrong, I wasn't the only reason for it, but I was carryin' the banner when there was nobody else that was. But we've had big help, for example, from Robert Cray. He's a superstar. The late Stevie Ray Vaughn was a superstar. So those two was the main forces to push the blues to where it is now. But Albert King, Bobby Bland, Little Milton, Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins, Gatemouth Brown, and I could name you many of us that's been continuously doin' it all the time, and most of 'em weren't getting recognition. Luckily for me, I've got the best manager in the world, Sid Seidenberg. I've got the best agency in the world, for me. I've got the best record company in the world, for me. And all the people around me — the best band for me — and a little talent myself. So this has kept me goin', and today, we do make a pretty decent livin'. But I'm tryin' to say, this is why, to answer your question, why I've traveled as much as I have.
How long do you figure you can keep this up? Any retirement plans?
Well, no I haven't saw that yet (laughing). But I think, in this business, music business, I'm lucky, I've got a job, I don't have to think of retirin' at 65, I'm past 65 and it seems to me that, today, I'm enjoyin' it as much, if not more than I have. We don't only get older, we get better.
So you are in your prime, you feel?
I didn't say that. I said that I enjoyed it as much, if not more. That don't mean actually, that I'm in my prime.
When was your prime if it isn't now?
If you're thinkin' in terms of popularity, I'm more popular today than I ever have been, yes. Because I've been doin' it longer and more around the world. We played around the world now. I played every superpower in the world except India. We played China last year, so that kind of made the world, if you will, except playin' the North Pole. We played the Soviet Union for the first time in 1979. We played it again in '94 and of course China in '94. So, I've played around the world.
Strength of playing and singing, when do you think you were in your prime that way?
I don't know. When I was a young man, like yourself, I thought I was good, until I heard some other people and heard them singin' and I found out I wasn't so good. I also thought I was a good musician, thought I played well. Then I started to hearin' Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker — then I found out I wasn't so good at guitar either. So those two things have kept me in check, hearin' other people and findin' out, singin' or playin', I wasn't as good as maybe I thought, and when you have to leave your fate to the mercy of the fans and the people that hear you, then they determine what you are as far as they're concerned and that's what counts, not what you think.
How has the satisfaction that you derive from playing changed over the years?
Well, for one thing, tomorrow, I know I can eat. I know that I can have a room. I know that my band can eat, they can have rooms. I can also pay them without having to borrow it back. That has given me satisfaction.
The music itself though ...
Has been the reason for what I've just said.
With each tour you grow as a guitarist. Do you feel you are continuing to evolve? Do you listen to a disc one day from Django Reinhardt and hear something these days that you might have passed over in the early days?
Yes, I hear things. I think it's like readin' a book. You might read a book once and you get an idea what it's about, but if you read it several more times you might see something that you missed and it's the same thing with me. I hear Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon, I hear all of my idols, and then I hear people of today and I'm steady hearin' things that I never heard before and yes, it give me ideas, but I could never even play like 'em when I was tryin'. But I practice. It's like growing, you know. It's like your parents, you never outgrow them and then, if you're like I am, and most of us, you always respect them, and you never get too big that you're mom won't grab you by the ear and say "Come here!" You know? Well, that's the way I am about the music. I never get, regardless of what anybody says — "Oh, B., he's great. He's so and so." But I know my limitations. I know there are so many things I can't do musically. I know there are so many things I can't do singin'. Oh God, I just can't. I know that. But if you say it, if you praise me, or if a fan says, "Oh, you're wonderful." I thank them, and I go home and get my guitar and practice.
So do you still sit on the bus occasionally and practice?
I hardly sit on the bus and practice, unless I'm changin' strings or somethin'. I do it in my room. My band — one of the guys has been with me 17 years — can hardly tell you when they caught me practicin'. Not a chance. I do it in my room, where I think I should do it, unless I'm rehearsin' with the band. But my private moments are in my room, which I do every night.
I remember reading biographies on you and seeing photos of you traveling with a lot of audio equipment, records, in your hotel room. Do you still travel that way?
Yeah, but today, I've got a tape recorder that's much smaller than yours. I have a little Sony that has the tape about a third the size of yours. You know the little Sonys? And so I don't have to have quantity, so much. But the answer is yes. I still carry things to listen to, and audio equipment, much to record and so on. So, yes.
I understand you're a record collector.
I spent all my money on it.
I remember you donated a lot of your collection (9,100 LPs, 45s and 78s in the mid 1980s) to the University of Mississippi.
Yes, I did.
Have you managed to build the collection up again at home?
I've got more than I had when I let them have it, but not the quality, 'cause there was things then that I could get that I haven't been able to find now. But a lot of the things, you know, today, are reprinted on CD, so a lot of the older things are becoming available.
What aspects of your job do you like the most these days and what do you like the least?
(Sighs) That's rather hard to say, because I don't think so much of what I do and how I do it so much. Umm, I still get excited goin' onstage. I still enjoy that. It's a challenge, daily, or nightly. Ah, I guess what I like least is the loss of privacy. I don't have the privacy that I would like to have sometimes. But, don't get me wrong, I'm nothin' like a lot of the superstars ... It bothers me if someone stops me and I start to give an autograph and after while there's eight or 10 people in line and I don't have time to give them all one. That bothers me. And it seems rude to walk off and say, "I'm sorry, but I've got to go." So this is one of the times when you have to have security with you, where somebody can be the bad person, and that bothers me. That hurts me to have to do that because people have been so good to me through the years, so I hate to do it, but sometimes you have to. So I think of it as givin' a child a bird. Child may squeeze it, hurt it, not tryin', just likin' it. But the fans do that and I'm just like that sometimes. They don't mean to give you a bad time, but they're there, and it happens.
What's been on your CD player lately, getting back to the record collection?
I'm very moody. I like music. Umm, I like some of all kinds of music. I like gospel. By the way, I started out to be a gospel singer, not a blues singer. I like country. I like blues, of course, obviously. And I like jazz, I like rock 'n' roll, I like soul. I like some light classics. I like some of all kinds of music, and when I listen to music, generally, I would buy a few CDs and I would take the cuts out of it that I like to listen to and make my own cassette. That's the way I listen to music. Not all of one, or all of another or all of another. I've never heard many CDs or LPs that I like the whole thing by that one person. Usually, I have special cuts that I like, and I usually tape them.
Do you listen to your own stuff at home?
Not much. Only for mistakes.
Do you go back and listen to the old stuff?
For mistakes. Mistakes. But I think that I've never made a perfect album or CD. Never. But I think on every one, there is some good work. So I listen for that a little bit, but I wouldn't let you catch me.
Which album of yours do you like the best?
The album I like the best is called "My Kind of Blues" and nobody probably recognized that because at that time the company I was with was makin' a lot of the very cheap albums. We went in in one evening and made the whole album — from about 5 to about 11 o'clock that night ... I just did tunes one evenin', we just picked out a bunch of tunes and went in and recorded 'em. We didn' try to make anything better or worse — just did what we do. And I thought it came out the way I liked.
Was that on the Kent label?
What younger bluesmen do you enjoy? You mentioned Cray earlier.
I have not heard any that I did not enjoy. I think of the young musicians playin' as I do, as I said about the records, I've never heard anybody play that didn't play something I wished I could play. So that includes the young as well as the old and there are a lot of good ones.
I remember seeing Larry McCray open for you.
Go ahead, name some more! (laughing heartily)
O.K...Are you a religious man these days?
I'm not what they used to call a Jesus freak. But yes, I am a very religious man. I think anybody that see the clouds roll around as they do and see the sun come up every day and nobody stops it, have to know that there is something, or someone ...To see the sun come up every day, to see man advancin' as he's doin' today, to see the many things around you — the trees growin', the many things happening. In the seas you see the giants, the whales and stuff. Any power that can keep that goin', I pray to it. So yes, I'm very religious when it comes to somethin' of that sort. Another thing I think of, usually, is always tryin' to treat people as I like to be treated. Those are a couple of the things I always try my best to do. Like I wouldn't do something to you that I wouldn't want you to do to me. So, if that's religious, I'm very religious."
Do you go to church at all?
When I can. Bein' a traveling musician, a traveling person, we don't have Sundays and Mondays. We have Everyday. And the time that you would say, "O.K. It's Sunday and I've been workin' all week and I'm gonna go to church Sunday." That's our day to go to work, period.
In a Living Blues story I wrote a few years back on your daughter (vocalist) Shirley (King), (see LB #120) she told me that she had been intimidated by you over the years and was never able to get close to you. Do you have any regrets about having had to live your life on the road so much?
No. I was just talkin' to my grandson (who is present for this interview) about that just before you came on. I have no regrets about what I did, how I've done it, at all. I haven't been the best father to my children, and the reason why I haven't been the best father to them is, I haven't always been there when they needed me. But my mind and love was always there. And thinkin' of their education, how they would be when they grew up, has been one of my motivating forces that have kept me doin' what I'm doin', to make sure that I leave something for them that I didn't have when I came. We had nothin'. My dad never had a home of his own, until I was 18, gettin' ready to go into the Army, and then we all helped to buy it.
But thank God, if my will is finished before I die in the next month or so, my grandchildren, my children, they will have something left for them that they can help with their children, (pointing at his grandson) he'll be able to help with his. Their grandfather, their great-grandfather will have left something for them. No, I have no regrets. None whatsoever. Because I've been able to do that and I'm proud of that. Now, they may not be, and they may not ever be, and I don't ... don't blame them. If that's the way they feel, fine. But I will have piece of mind, to know that I was able to, with these two hands and this big mouth, to be able to do something that would help them, whether they wanted it or not.
And one of the things I've really wanted for all of my children and grandchildren is to have a good education, something I didn't have. I came out of school at 10th grade. But I wanted them, and I wanted to be there for them. So if you ask me tomorrow night, at 3 o'clock, I'd wake up and say, "I have no regrets." God has been good to me and so have the people.
I thought I should give you a chance to reply to that story in print, because some controversial things were said.
Well, that's all right. That's all right. Everybody ... My children, like you probably have things that your father may not would like to hear you say, thinkin' that you maybe made a mistake. Well, I think that whenever I'm looked down upon for what I've done, that's a mistake that they're making and I don't have to correct it.
If you wouldn't have been a bluesman, what type of career might you have pursued?
I have no idea. I enjoyed the plantation. I enjoyed bein' a disc jockey. The plantation, I drove tractors, trucks, machinery I was pretty good with. That I enjoyed. So I suppose that, had I not, I suppose, had I not decided to go into show business, I would have probably enjoyed bein' a truck driver or a bus driver or somethin' like that.
What is it about yourself, there is something in your personality that seems to not be in the personalities of other people that has allowed you to bring the blues to a wide audience and you still retain the respect of the purists?
I don't know if I do or not. Blues purists has never given me any Oscars or trophies or honors or nothing that has to do with praise as far as I know about. So I don't think the blues purists, they don't really hardly know that I'm around. It's other people that ... I'm just B.B. King. I've never tried to be pure with blues or not pure with them. I just do what I do, and what I do best and what people seem to enjoy me doin' best, that's my concern.
You really feel that the purists don't respect you?
I don't have any trophies or no acknowledgement or nothing of that sort from anybody that — in other words, I'm always criticized by doin' other things ...The blues purists, the ones that call themselves that, they seem to think that maybe John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, or along the line of my cousin Bukka White, along the line of what most blues purists seem to think is pure blues ...
I remember once bein' at the Apollo Theater and, it's so funny, I had written a part showing, in my mind, or in my opinion, B.B. King from then until that time. And I had wrote this myself and I got one of my people to read to it when I went onstage. So what it was about, was B.B. King starting with an acoustic guitar, which is what I did. I went onstage. I didn't say anything, I just went out, cold, and one of my people started to narrate what I had written, which I had responded to by doin' what was my little play, if you will, monologue had set up. From the acoustic guitar then, he kept readin', and then he started with the electric guitar years later and that's when I picked up Lucille and started to play. Some critic in the audience, wrote later on that, "B.B. King is playin' watered-down blues at the Apollo Theater and had some slick writer to write something..." (laughs) And I said to myself, "I got one compliment, I didn't know I was a slick writer!" I wrote it myself! And this person was supposed to be elaboratin' on pure blues and what not.
I felt a little sad about it at one time but then I just stopped worryin' about it because I made several records before I made "Three O'Clock Blues," and when I did, and it became a hit, the blues purists or nobody else was there but the band, nobody but the band and the people that were recordin' it. So those were the ones I depended on then and the others are the ones I depend on today. And, of course, naturally, the audience will always let me know whether they like it or not, 'cause if they don't like it, they don't buy it. So you know then that you didn't do what they wanted.
What have been some of the highlights of your career, in your mind? Can you hit some of the high points?
Yeah. The Kennedy Center Awards.
Can you talk a little bit about that? What was it like to sit with President Clinton and his wife after all those years of hard work?
It's a great thing, but I had met the president before that. I met him and Mrs. Clinton, I had met then both before that. It's a great thing. A boy from Mississippi gettin' a chance to meet a President of the United States, it's something, I don't really know how to define my feeling. I just feel that I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world.
To never dream of meeting people, meetin' a president is like, there's nobody in the world who's more powerful than the president. The Pope is not as powerful, in my opinion, as is the President of the United States. In other words, after you leave him, you meetin' God. Ain't nobody else that powerful. That is one of the things that was so, how can I say? I felt like a kid in a candy store. I don't know what to do. But he, the president, had told me when I met him the first time, that he had seen me before and well, you know, I thought, "Well, oh yeah, yeah, yeah." But then he said "I saw you and Bobby Bland over at the Robertson Auditorium over in Little Rock, Arkansas. When he told me that, I knew that he meant what he was sayin', you know? And I believed him. He's a nice man. I like him. I like him very much.
What were some of the other highlights?
Well, bein' honored at Yale. I have an honorary doctorate degree from Yale. I don't remember what year. And having one from Tugaloo College. The first one I had was from Tugaloo College in Mississippi, down near Jackson. Then one from Yale. I've been honored at Ole' Miss, which I used to be afraid to even cross the campus — walk across it, near it. They don't give honorary doctorate degrees, but they honor you, which is seldom, and they did honor me. I had an honorary doctorate from Robes College in Memphis. I have have an honorary doctorate from Berkley School of Music.
So all of these are very important to me, but then I have the American award, the, I forget what they call it, during President Bush's administration — so all of these are very important to me. Everything to me is so important. I was honored at Yale at the same time ex-president Ford was. We both were there ... I'm no speaker, but they had me to say something and whatever I said, I guess, they liked in some ways, because I had my guitar and played a little bit and everybody seemed to enjoy it.
You're not simply a bluesman, but a cultural icon, I believe — and a lot of people do. What do you view as your responsibility in your role as a patriarch in black culture. I mean, you're a man who is probably going to have a postage stamp at some point.
I ain't ready for it (laughing). When you have a postage stamp you have to at least been dead 10 years!
But eventually, I'm gonna be dead and you're gonna be dead...
But like I said, I ain't anxious for that ... I think my responsibility is to be a good citizen, to do how, like the Bible says, unto others as I would have them do unto me. And that, I think, is my role as a person.
In front of the National Press Club you registered frustration that the young black audience was somehow neglecting the blues and I was hoping you could elaborate on that. I also wonder how you feel about rap. It's so lyrically-oriented, a trait that has always been appreciated in black culture.
I thought, and still think, that we, as a people, are not teachin' young blacks enough about this part of their culture and it's like a lot of the American composers — there's not enough, I think, taught in schools about the American composers, whether they be classics from Broadway or Duke Ellington, or like Miles Davis or Benny Goodman. The kids don't know about these people, they don't know enough about them — the ones that know something about 'em. And of course, if they don't know anything about them, we, in the blues, don't have a chance.
How many stations across the U.S. play blues daily? They are not the black stations, college stations usually. I was readin' in your magazine, where I think it was 28 stations I saw at that time, this has been maybe a year ago when I saw this, but I thought it was tremendous that they would be logged in the book. But, I notice, from East Coast to West Coast, there just aren't many, not many. When we do get play, it's usually on a college station, or some station of that kind.
I remember one guy from a radio station was bein' nice to me one day and he said "B., you know, we play blues, every Saturday. Every Saturday we play blues all day." I said "Yeah, thanks. That's great. What do you do the rest of the week? (laughs). Why you have to be so good to us on Saturday? Why can't you play some Monday through Saturday?" I said "How long are you on the air?" He say, "We on from mornin' 'til midnight." I said, "Mornin' to midnight Mondays through Fridays and you play blues on Saturday?" I said "I thank ya, but God, why don't you just play a few of them Mondays through Saturdays?" So he didn't answer me. So, actually, the blues, today, is not played enough.
The reason I say enough is because I'm workin' 250, or 260 concerts per year. These people have to like the blues. They don't just come out just because I'm comin' to town. So that shows that there are people that like the blues, that support them. And a lot of them, most of 'em are white — white, young kids, or young thinkin' people, that come out. Well, I try to figure out, to myself, why is it that the blues is known more to young white people than they are to young blacks?
Now when you say "rap music" I think of rap as boogie woogie when I was boy. Boogie woogie was a fad that we kids love (vocalizes a boogie woogie rhythm). Eight beats to the bar, as they say. Parents didn't like it. Parents didn't like it very much at all. Then I lived through several other fads, like mambo and the calypsos, and so on. But then the next big fad was rock 'n' roll. Everybody went batty over rock 'n' roll, but parents, they said "Oh my God, what is this music?" But I thought of it then the same as I did when I was kid. "Why not let the kids have rock 'n' roll? Why can't they have it? This is their time. Why can't they like a music if they want to?" And so I think the same thing about rap or anything, the punk rock or whatever. I think the same thing. The best of it will be around, because there will always be somebody who like it because they were the ones who started it. Same thing with rock 'n' roll. The best of rock 'n' roll is still here and it will always be, as long as people love it.
Well ... rap music, the only thing that I would put down on rap, has to do with four letter words, and I will only put down on that is because I would maybe carry my granddaughter, or my grandson to a concert, and I'm not gonna be too happy when guys start to sayin' all kinda words and puttin' down women and so on. I wouldn't be too happy about that. But most of 'em are very popular — not only very popular, very talented, I should say. They're very talented. You try to rhyme everything you say and I bet you go get the dictionary, 'cause you're going to have a problem tryin' to do it.
So, I think they're very, very talented and this is their music, their time in history. This is the time for them to make their mark. So, I'm not against them at all. I'm not against it. I just think blues is sort of like the old grandfather, that fathered all the rest of 'em.
Are there any other creative outlets that you would still like to explore as a man who is in his early 70's? You issued that CD-ROM and that was an interesting thing. Anything else?
Of course. I'm not dead yet (laughs). I'd like to do a full-length movie. I've been in many movies, but I've never been in one, shall we say, from top to bottom. I'd like to be co-star, and not the star, then I would enjoy it. That hasn't happened yet.
What would the subject matter be?
Anything I could do ... and I also love computers. I like foolin' around with them. I'm not no whiz. Some author wrote a book about me and the computer and it's called "The Idiot (laughs)." So that one, I'm in. But, I like foolin' around with them. When I was kid, I never heard the word 'computer.' I hadn't heard television 'til I was a young man. So all of these many things, technology was way beyond what I knew or thought about.
Today we know about these things and I'd like to get more into them. Each day, to me, if I don't learn somethin', it's been a day lost. I find it interesting to try and learn. I only went through the tenth grade in high school but ever since that time, I've felt like I was always behind the eight ball. I've always needed to know this, needed to know that. So I'm every day like a sponge — you know, how you pick up water? That's the way I am.
If you had it to do all over again, would there be anything you'd do differently?
Yes. There is something. If I had it to do all over again, a lot of the things I would not change. I enjoyed being on the plantation. I enjoyed the work. I wouldn't want to live through a segregated society. But I would finish high school, go to college if at all possible, and learn about music, major in music and minor in business of some kind, maybe computers, if I knew how — and I wouldn't get married until after 40!
Interviews conducted over several years during the mid- to late-1990s.
References: The Arrival of B.B. King by Charles Sawyer (Doubleday and Company, Inc.) and The Big Book of Blues by Robert Santelli (Penguin Books).