BB King At 80
Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.comThe following stems from a 20-page "Billboard Stars: B.B. King" special feature that appears in the Oct. 1, 2005, issue of Billboard magazine. Beyond the extensive Q&A excerpted below, the section boasts several articles examining the blues great's career, including rankings of his top albums.
The full original text is available online to Billboard subscribers.
To order a single copy of the special issue, visit www.orderbillboard.com.
Did you ever imagine you would still be doing this when you turned 80?
[Laughs] No. I wouldn't have bet you that I would've got over 50. But I'm happy to be here. I feel that I'm very lucky. This year has taken its toll, it seems to me, on people in entertainment. Peter Jennings... Mr. [John] Johnson in Chicago, the man who started the first black magazines like Ebony and Jet, he died... Luther Vandross... and Little Milton.
So I feel happy and lucky. It's sort of like when you get into the army; your buddy gets shot next to you, and you say, "I'm sorry, so sorry." But then you think, deep down, "I'm glad it wasn't me."
What keeps you doing it at this point?
Well, popularity has a lot to do with it. Blues music doesn't get exposed on radio like other types of music. So if I don't take it to the people, they don't know I'm out here. I go around the country or out of the country -- I've played 90 different countries -- and I noticed a long time ago when I go to some city, I start to get mail and the record sales go up.
So I've found out that it's best for me to travel a lot. Then I can get good work and, of course, sell records.
Do you feel a mission to promote the blues in general, as well as your own music?
Well, that could be part of it. We've had and have today young superstars who play the blues, and they don't get the exposure I think they should -- for example, Robert Cray, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, there are others. And I don't hear them. We only have two, three satellite stations, I think. They're the only ones that play the blues every day.
Where I live, on Saturday night they'll play blues for two or three hours. So if a person was looking for blues, you have to wait till Saturday night, like you're a vampire. [laughs] But what about Sunday, Monday, Tuesday... ?
Why do you think blues cannot get more exposure?
I think it's like when a person has a car, he lets ride who he wants. So the stations play what they want or what they think people want. They make money off it, so you can't blame them, I guess. So that's one of the reasons.
You ask why I travel so much, and that's my reason. I could've retired financially when I was 65, but that wouldn't have served a purpose to me. It seems to me now I do more good moving about than I ever did before, because more people know about me today.
How did you start making music?
Oh, I guess I started like most people did. I played little gigs around, tried to make people like me by doing the best I could. Finally I was a disc jockey, and I got popular in the area of Memphis, as far as the station could be heard. So I'd play little gigs. My guarantee at first was $100, then $150 a date. That don't take care of a band too much, so that caused me to be able to support myself and the group.
Was there a sense that music could make you rich when you started out?
[Laughs] Well, I didn't think I'd get rich, but I thought I'd do a heck of a lot better than I was doing on the plantation. I was getting half a cent a side for each record, so that meant I got a penny for every [single] I sold. That was my first deal.
But I probably would've done it for nothing, because I wanted to be recorded. When you want to record and you believe you've got something and you want the world to hear it, you don't think about the other stuff. You just want to record it. I think a lot of the young people today feel the same way, but I don't think they'd do it for nothing. They've got better sense than I had. [laughs]
How did you develop your playing style?
I could lie to you and say, "Yeah, I knew I was going to have this style," but I don't know how I did it. I was crazy about, believe it or not, the Hawaiian style of music. The Hawaiians have a different sound, the ukulele and the guitar, and so does country music with that steel guitar. To me, man, that's the greatest sound of a guitar ever.
So every time I'd pick up a guitar, I'd trill my hand, and when I trill my hand my ears said it sounded like a steel guitar, if you know what I'm saying. I finally got to a place where every time I picked up a guitar I had to sound like that, because I couldn't do anything else.
What was your first guitar?
My very first guitar was a little red Stella. Compared to the guitar I play now, it would be about two-thirds the length of it. I was working in Mississippi, making $15 a month at the time. I found a guy who had this guitar, and he wanted $15 for it. So I asked my boss if he would get it for me, and he said yes, so he got the little guitar for me and I had to give up half my salary for two months to get it.
How about your first Lucille?
My first Lucille I got about 1950 or '51. It was a Gibson; it later became the 335, but at first it was a little black Gibson.
And you are now on...
Lucille the 16th. Most of the rest are at home. The first one got stolen one night when I was up in the Bronx in New York. I went to see a friend of mine, and someone went in the trunk of my car, took out my amplifier, my guitar, a spare [tire] and the battery. I tried advertisements and said I would pay $5,000 to anyone who would bring it, but nobody ever did. I guess they never knew what they had.
Your new album is another duets collection with a bunch of very well-known artists and friends. What do you get out of those albums that is different from doing one on your own?
These people are superstars, man. A lot of people know them that don't know B.B. King, so if I could get some of these people to play with me, that might introduce me to those people who don't know me.
And another reason is because I enjoy working with people, and it's educational. Most all of them I sit down, and we work together. There's a lot of learning, a lot of friendship, a lot of good things for people, I think, because I learned a lot, and being around so long I'm sure they must've heard something from me, too. So it was fun, good will and, I think, a good CD.
Do you have a wish list of people you would still like to play with and haven't?
It's more than I have time to talk to you. I want to play with everybody.
How are you feeling about the B.B. King Museum & Interpretive Center in Indianola?
Oh, man, that's one of the greatest things that I think has happened to B.B. King. I'm from the Delta -- Mississippi. Most of the blues singers in the world come from the Mississippi Delta, so this museum will tell a lot of these stories about not only B.B. King but about the Delta and music as a whole that has to do with the blues.
I'm one, and a lot of others, believe that blues is the origin of much of the Western music we hear today. So this museum will tell a big part of that story.
Do you have a favorite B.B. King album?
Yes, one called "My Kind of Blues" -- but I don't think anybody bought it but me! [laughs] I recorded it in one evening, the whole thing, starting about 3 o'clock and finishing about midnight. And I was doing songs that to me had the blues feeling that we don't get in a lot of the songs we play.
How about a favorite song?
I'd have to go with "The Thrill Is Gone," because if I didn't play that I'd probably get tomatoes thrown at me.
How did that song come about?
Well, I heard the melody of it from a guy called Roy Hawkins. I liked the melody so well I rewrote the tune, the lyrics for it, and for two or three years every time I'd go to a session I had ideas for it, but it never worked.
So finally one night in New York, about 2 in the morning, I pulled it out and had a great rhythm section -- I had Herbie Lovelle on drums, Paul Harris on keyboards, Hugh McCracken on guitar, Gerald Jemmott on bass, and, boy, the minute we started, it clicked. I could hear it right there.
Is it ironic to have a signature song called "The Thrill Is Gone" when, clearly, the thrill is hardly gone for you?
Well, that's the myth about the blues, isn't it? People think that every time you play blues your mother or father just died or your wife quit you and so on. But we like to play music because it feels and sounds good to us. Of course we get blues like everybody else, but there are a lot of songs that, if you're blue, all of a sudden you're not blue anymore because the song helps you.
The blues isn't just about being blue; that's just a name they gave it, just like every rock'n'roll tune I've heard wasn't rock'n'roll.
Do you foresee playing music for the rest of your life?
I intend to do it for as long as possible, as long as my health lets me. I'm diabetic, but other than that, my health is pretty good. I can get along pretty well. People still buy my records and come to my concerts. I don't want to go fishing every day, and I don't feel like watching Hoot Gibson, Roy Rogers and all those guys, the old movies I'm crazy about, cowboy movies. I couldn't do that every day. So what else is there for me to do?
Excerpted from the Oct. 1, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
For information about ordering a copy of the issue, visit www.orderbillboard.com.