B.B. King Interview

Legendary R&B guitarist so happy to play the blues

B.B. King. Publicity still.

B.B. King. Publicity still.

It’s not every day a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee asks you to recommend a few slack-key guitarists he should have in his CD collection. But B.B. King (class of 1987) made me promise to do just that.

“I like the sound, but … I don’t know who to listen to,” said the genuinely curious blues guitar legend, on the phone from a Seattle tour stop last week. “So maybe you could make a note of the people you think have good harmony … and when I come over there … you could tell me what to get. I would certainly appreciate it.”

Uh, sure, Mr. King.

After a Kaua’i concert last night, B.B. King continues a whirlwind statewide concert trek that takes him to Blaisdell Arena tonight, the Maui Arts & Cultural Center tomorrow and the Big Island’s Hilton Waikoloa Village Sunday.

Born Riley B. King 77 years ago near Indianola, Miss., B.B. King is one of the most gifted and honored electric blues guitarists of the past half-century. Since his first studio release in 1949, King has recorded more than 50 albums, placed 74 songs on Billboard’s R&B singles chart, and won 11 Grammy Awards.

In addition to his solo classics (“The Thrill Is Gone,” “Three O’Clock Blues,” among them), he’s collaborated on stage and in the studio with musician admirers such as U2, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt and Tracy Chapman.

A Hawai’i concert regular (his last statewide collection of performances was in March 2001), King is an extremely gracious, humorously self-effacing conversationalist and a natural storyteller.

His five decades in music too voluminous to cover in a half-hour, our chat touched briefly on King’s introduction to the blues, a few of his idols, his 2000 Grammy-winning CD with longtime friend Eric Clapton “Riding With The King” (it was also the biggest-selling album of his career and his first Billboard Top 10 album), and keeping a 200-dates-a-year touring schedule.

Oh, and about that promise, sir? I recommend you start your collection with CDs by Gabby Pahinui, Ray Kane, Sonny Chillingworth, Led Kaapana and Keola Beamer. But remember, that’s just my opinion.

Here’s the Q&A:

When you were starting out, what drew you to blues over other music of the time?

Well, I grew up in an area where blues was played. You either heard gospel music or blues. When I was becoming a teenager, I heard jazz, but … mostly blues and gospel. Most of the people in the area … really smiled on (gospel) and frowned on blues. … My mother was very religious, and a lot of her friends and people we knew were very religious, so that’s all you heard. We didn’t have electricity where we lived, so there were no radios. And few people would have phonographs — those ones where you wound ’em up and the records were almost a quarter-of-an-inch thick. (Laughs.) So that’s all we had. I didn’t have an electric guitar until I was a teenager.

Where did you first hear the blues?

My mother had a young aunt. … She would buy records by people that she liked. The favorites at that time were Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson and, oh, many others. … And when my mother would visit her, she would let me play them. And that’s how I started hearing ’em.

And your mother was OK with you listening to this “frowned on” music?

My mother wouldn’t mind me hearing it.

But she wouldn’t allow it in her own house.

Well, we didn’t have a record player. … She just didn’t want me singing it. … But I think my mother was sort of like a lot of young mothers are today. As long as I was having fun and not worrying the hell out of her, she was … (laughs heartily) … she didn’t say too much about it. But you know, (the blues) were fascinating to me because we didn’t have a phonograph and I wasn’t around one often. So whenever we visited my aunt, I could play them. And some of the sounds, I guess, just stuck in my head.

Who were your idols then?

My idols then was the same as they are today, sir. Lonnie Johnson — not Robert — was my favorite. I liked a guy from Texas. His name was Lemon Jefferson, but I hear that he was born blind and everybody called him Blind Lemon (Jefferson). But Lonnie Johnson was my favorite. Robert Johnson was the most popular, I guess. But something about Lonnie Johnson was different to me, and I liked him.

Then I started to hear jazz. And I heard of a guy called Charlie Christian. He played electric guitar (with) jazz on it.

When I was 18, I went in the Army, and a friend of mine was stationed overseas and he knew I liked guitar. When he came back, he brought records by a Frenchman — they called him a French Gypsy — named Django Reinhardt. Then finally, I heard a guy playing blues on electric guitar — single strings, I might say — named T-Bone Walker. And that, shall we say, concluded the people that I loved. … And believe it or not, right with me now, I have an mp3 that’s got each one of ’em on it.

You travel with a lot of music?

Yeah, I travel with it all the time. I like different kinds of music. I’ve always liked some of all kinds. I’ve never liked all of any kind. I don’t like all blues.

With all the musical idols you have, how do you feel when musicians refer to you as one of their idols?

Well, I’m happy. In the early years, I never knew about it. It took a long time for me to get that sunk in — that people did listen to me for, shall we say, information. I used to think that people listened to me mostly for pleasure. But then, later on I started to hear … I’ll tell you what, I was reading a magazine once and I read where John Lennon — the great John Lennon — was being interviewed and the interviewer asked him what would he like to do (most). And he said, “Play guitar like B.B. King.” And man, I couldn’t believe that. And that’s when I started to pay attention to what some people had been telling me — that people did listen to me.

Eric Clapton was also one of those musicians who idolized you. How did “Riding With The King” come together?

Well, Eric and I have been friends since the early ’60s. The first time I saw him was in New York at a place called … Cafe-A-Go-Go, I think it was called. But anyway, we’ve been friends — not bosom buddy friends; we don’t call each other every month — but we’ve been friends since then. … And one night … he was on the Larry King show, and he said that he’d like to do a CD with me. I heard about it, and I couldn’t believe it. So I had some of my people get in touch with him, and he said that, yes, he would like to do it. And it started that way. We had a problem trying to get (our record) companies though to agree on the what-and-how. But he and I, we met and talked. I had been wanting to do it all the time, but you don’t impose on friends, you know. So I would never mention it. But I wanted to do it long before I heard him say it.

The success of the CD couldn’t have been much of a surprise given that you’re both legendary talents, but how was that success particularly gratifying for you?

It was great. It sold more than any album I’ve ever done.

Was it as fun to record as it sounds on CD?

Oh yeah! Well, like I said … he and I have been friends for all these years. And in my opinion, he is number one. There’s no rock ‘n roll guitarist since Jimi Hendrix … Eric has been number one ever since, in my opinion. And he played blues better than most of us. He’s a super man, you know, a super talent. And a great guy. He’s not just a great musician, but a beautiful guy. He’s one of the nicest men in the world.

Who was in the driver’s seat during the sessions?

The only ideas were Eric’s. I had told him at first, pick the musicians, the studio and the music. And if I didn’t like some of it, we’d talk about it. There were two or three (songs) I didn’t like, so we did talk about it. But he’s more persuasive than my girlfriend! (Laughs.) He got a way of making me do anything he wants me to do. And after his persuasion his way, it sounded all right. So I’d do it. We had no problems. Like I said, he’s a knowledgeable fellow, he’s a great guitarist, and he just does things well. He just does ’em right. Whatever it is, it seems like he has an idea for it.

Was it his idea to drive you around in the video (for the “Riding With The King” single) as well? You seemed pretty comfortable just jamming in the back seat with Clapton at the wheel.

Yeah, that was his idea as well. It was his idea to get the car. The dialogue at first wasn’t for him to drive. We were just gonna take pictures by this car. And I think it was his producer that decided that he would drive it. So I’m supposed to be serenading him in the back — he’s driving and I’m in the back serenading him. We was in Warner Bros. studios in Hollywood. And he hit one of them bumps and kind of bumped me up a little bit. And I got a pretty bad mouth so I said, “What the hell you think, you drivin’ Miss Daisy?” (Laughs hard.) And he laughed. That’s why you see him smilin’. I got a terrible mouth, and he hates it. But he’s a dear friend. … We always have fun when we play together. Always.

I’ve heard that your next CD is gonna be an all-duets …

Well, people always say things that I don’t. And I didn’t say that! (Laughs heartily.)

OK … and that’s why I’m asking the man himself.

(Still laughing.) I can’t tell ya. But I will tell ya that it’s different though. It’s different from anything else (I’ve done). We have out one that most people don’t know about, but you’ll start hearing about it, I imagine, this month. We did a Christmas CD last year, but we did it just before Christmas so it wasn’t played much. We did it in honor of … a place in the Hollywood area called City of Hope. And these people do a lot of good work for kids, and anybody with cancer, and diabetic patients. We called it “Christmas Celebration of Hope.” It was out last year, but not too many people knew about it. But I’m sure you will this year. A lot of people don’t even know we made it.

But the one you can’t tell me about … that one’s coming out next year sometime?

We’re thinking of doing one, yes, for next year. And it will be different. I can’t tell you though, because if I do, you’ll tell somebody else and they’ll …

… they’ll tell somebody else, and on and on it goes.

Well no! Most times, they’ll take your idea and do better with it than you were gonna do. So … (Laughs.)

Ohhh, I see. I’ve got it now.

So that’s why I’m not telling you! (Laughs.)

Good! I wouldn’t tell me a damn thing either.

But I can tell you it’s not going to be a duets (CD). I can tell you that. I may have other people on it, but it won’t be just duets.

What keeps you performing live after 50-plus years of doing it?

Well, I like to do it. I like to do it. You may be happy to hear that I don’t have to now. Thank God, my managers and people around me taught me investments that made me … I’m not rich, but I don’t have to do what I’m doing.

… Then, I’ve got people around me that have worked with me for years. Some of the band members have been with me up to twentysomething years. I’ve got — oh, what can I tell ya? — the best band I’ve ever had, and I love working with ’em.

And you’re still doing a lot of dates a year …

I’m not doing as many. I’ve cut down a lot. I’m just starting work today after three weeks off. Last year, I think I did about 197 concerts.

That’s still pretty impressive, sir.

Nah … we (were) averaging 230, 240, sometimes up to 250 concerts a year. But last year we only did 197. To me, that’s cutting way down.

What would it take to make you say, “OK, maybe I won’t do this anymore?”

Oh, if my health gets bad. If my health gets bad, and I can’t handle myself well. Or if people stop coming to see me and stop buying my CDs. That would give me a message right there.

But you’re strong and healthy, right?

I’m doin’ fine! I’m diabetic, but I’m doin’ fine. I’ve been a diabetic for about 15 years. But at this time, I’m doing very well. I feel good today … fantastic.

These days, you’re consistently called a legend by fans, the media and other musicians. How do you see yourself?

Well, let me put it this way. I read in Webster’s Dictionary that a legend is someone or something that has stood the test of time. I’ve been recording since 1949, and I’m still recording.

I think that I’ve stood a pretty good test. What do you think?

I’d call you a legend, sir.

All right. So when people today call me a legend, I’m honored … honored that they think well of me. And I’ll tell you something that happens now that makes me feel so happy to be alive. There’s hardly a concert that I do where when my name is mentioned, the audience doesn’t stand up. That’s a rare thing that doesn’t happen (a lot) nowadays.

It’s gotta feel pretty good.

It makes me feel terrific. … It makes me feel that people love me. It makes me feel that people respect me, and like me — like for me to be around and glad that I’m still around. And that makes me … oh man, I can sleep good at night! (Laughs.)

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