Universally hailed as the king of the blues, B.B. King was probably the most influential electric guitarist of the last half century. Since the late 1960s, when rock audiences discovered him and his refined, majestic brand of the blues, this legendary entertainer was blues most successful concert artist and its most consistently recognized ambassador. He died yesterday at the age of 89.
I interviewed him a few times over the years and found him to be so humble and a delight to talk with about his extraordinary life. So here’s a little B.B. wisdom.
“My fun when I’m home is getting in my El Camino and going up in the mountains and I love to look at the wild life.”
As a child he picked cotton on a plantation and grew up through the Depression in a backbreaking regime of work from pre-dawn to long after sunset. At an early age King discovered that playing the blues proved far more lucrative than picking cotton.
“I left the cotton fields thinking I wanted things to be better and make money and help my family and friends,” he remembered. “I knew I had to be pretty good to make money and the only thing I could do is try to wrap on Lucille (his guitar) and really work at it to make people like it. I think I got lucky, but I ain’t sold my soul to the devil. This old myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil, if you believe that, I’ve got a Brooklyn bridge I can sell you.”
One of the keys to King’s success lay in the wide range of ideas incorporated in his music. Raised on gospel, he cited his earliest influences as jazz guitarists Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, and from his earliest days he emulated the phrasing of blues guitarists like T-Bone Walker. But his distinctive, trilling guitar style came from a surprising source – Hawaiian steel guitar. Hearing that sweet island sound spurred him to practice.
“It just sounds mellow,” he said. “I’ve never been a romantic guy, but I can enjoy having my girl on my arm when I hear those guys play. The Hawaiians playing with the slide and country players with the electric steel, oh man that just goes through me. All these years I’ve loved them.”
When the Rolling Stones and other popular British acts topped the charts with songs inspired by American blues, King’s popularity began to increase, especially with a new white audience.
“Eric Clapton and a lot of the groups from the U.K. like the Rolling Stones, and later Stevie Ray Vaughan, all helped it (blues) be more popular than it would have been had they not played it,” said King, who was astonished when heard how many of Britain’s rock elite sung his praises.
“The first time I heard someone talking about me was John Lennon. He was being interviewed and he was asked, ‘what would he like to do?’ He said, ‘play guitar like B.B. King.’ I couldn’t believe it. No group has been like the Beatles, I was dumbfounded. It was one of the greatest (compliments) I’ve had.”
King teamed with Eric Clapton for “Riding With The King,” which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. This joyful union of friends brought King his first ever appearance on Billboard’s Top 10 chart.
“We have a certain chemistry with each other where we connect when we’re playing,” said King, who first met Clapton in 1967 at a jam session that included Jimi Hendrix. “He’s one of the nicest men I’ve ever met and one of the greatest musicians, in fact in my book, he’s number one.
Having accomplished so much during his prolific life this humble musician responded with a surprising answer when asked what he feels most proud about achieving.
“I don’t think I’ve ever made a perfect record,” he reported, “but I think there’s some good work in all of them. I always hear something like why did you do that, what was that for. A lot of time people praise me and I thank them, but I don’t always feel I deserve some of the things they praise me for. I started recording in 1949, but I don’t think I’ve ever made a perfect record, and I don’t believe I ever will. But each time I make a record I do the best I can. One thing it does is make you try to do better even today.”
As the last of the great living blues legends one wonders how he feels? “It’s scary,” he revealed. “I lost my old friend John Lee Hooker not too long ago. I believe that I was left here for a reason and after losing so many of the guys I wonder when my day is coming. I hope I’m here for a while because I like looking at these pretty girls,” he laughs. “I have three reasons for wanting to live as long as possible. It used to be ladies, ladies and ladies. I changed a bit, now it’s ladies, friends and music in that order. Without either one I’d be very sad. I’m just glad to be alive.”
Having released more than 50 albums and introduced blues to almost 90 countries during his long reign, King felt especially moved by the appreciation expressed by audiences and fellow musicians for his unique ability to embody the joyful essence of blues in his guitar playing and singing.
“One thing is having young musicians come up to me and some of them even bow to me as if I was a king,” he said in answer to the question what delights him most about being a musician. “I can go on stage today and people will stand before I even sit down to play, the honor they give me, it feels so good that sometimes I could cry. That’s the joy I get out of it, and it seems like these 50 some years of trying to play haven’t been for nothing.”