'I Intend To Do It for As Long As Possible': B.B. King Reflects on His Career (Q&A from the Archives)

Steve Jennings/WireImage
B.B. King performs at Marin Center on Feb. 26, 2014 in San Rafael, California.

B.B. King, who has died at age 89, was profiled with this in-depth interview in Billboard on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2005.
 

He is an icon, a musician whose first initials alone separate him from a legion of both admirers and wannabes.

His name has become a brand for his own style of blues. Most anybody who's slung a guitar over their shoulder would give an appendage for the privilege of playing with him.

And yet, in this year that marks his 80th birthday and the arrival a new album simply titled 80, he humbly says, "There are a lot of people who haven't heard of B.B. King."

That's hard to imagine. Since he started recording in 1949, King has set a standard of musical excellence that's influenced scores of followers and has seldom been equaled. A player, singer, writer and bandleader, he's a Mississippi Delta pioneer who forged his own unique sound from the influence of his forebears. 

He has created a soulful and melodic approach to the blues that nevertheless stung when it had to and was played with a genuine sense of grit and urgency even when the arrangements were polished to a shiny sonic veneer.

Much of the credit for that goes to King's playing style and his distinctive tone, a sweet, ringing sound influenced by Hawaiian and country music but played with technique learned by blues and jazz masters such as T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Lonnie Johnson and king's cousin, Bukka White --  whose 10-month tutelage of King in the mid-'40s laid the foundation for his subsequent approach and musical vision.

Like the greats he admired, whatever he was playing -- be it "Three O'Clock Blues," Lowell Fulsom's "Every Day I Have the Blues," Joe Turner's "Sweet Sixteen" or the signature hit "The Thrill is Gone" -- became King's from the very first note.

Taste has something to do with it, too. One of King's most famous encounters was on onstage jam with the late Stevie Ray Vaughan; seeking to impress his idol, Vaughan played a furious flurry of notes. King, though equally virtuosic, responded with a single, pure ping, reducing Vaughan to tears of laughter, recognizing the simple statement King was making.

He's maintained those virtues for 56 years of recording and heavy touring and sounds as enthusiastic today as he probably was at the beginning.

Of course, there's plenty of reason for additional enthusiasm this year of King's 80th birthday. (The celebrated day was Sept. 16).

He's still on the road, of course, with a regimen that includes a touring summer blues festival. The upcoming debut album, 80, features collaborations with Eric Clapton -- with whom King won a Grammy Award for the album "Riding With the King" -- Elton John, John Mayer, Gloria Estefan and others. Ground has been broken on the B.B. King Museum & Interpretive Center in his home town of Indianola, Miss., and a chain of nightclubs that carries his names continues to flourish amidst the Hard Rock Cafes and Houses of Blues.

He was born Riley B. King in Itta Bena, Miss., raised by his mother and grandmother, working as a sharecropper and singing in church.

He moved to Indianola in 1943, where he started hearing the music that would impact his life and inspire his career. He returned to Indianola after studying with White in Memphis, but the muse was too great. In 1948, he and his wife, Martha, packed up and headed back to Memphis.

King became a DJ at WDIA in Memphis, first known as The Peptikon Boy, then as the Beale Street Blues Boy, which was later shortened to Blues Boy and then to B.B., giving him a stage handle as well.

He developed a live reputation in the Memphis clubs as well before signing with Bullet records, which led to a formal contract with the Modern Records spinoff RPM label in Los Angeles, recording with Sam Phillips before he established his Sun Records imprint.

King's career highlights are enough to fill a book -- including his own Blues All Around Me and the new The B.B. King Treasures for his personal collection of mementos. He pounded Billboard's R&B charts with 74 songs between 1951-85 and made an impact on other surveys, including the Grammy-winning crossover sensation "The Thrill is Gone," which hit No. 15 on the Hot 100 in 1970, and "When Love Comes to Town," his collaboration with U2. King even appeared on the Disco Singles chart in 1975 with "Philadelphia," while the John Hiatt-written title song to "Riding With the King" was a Mainstream Rock Tracks entry.

Besides U2 and Clapton, King has also recorded with the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, The Crusaders, Dr. John, Joe Cocker, Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour, Marty Stuart, Grover Washington, Randy Travis, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Pat Metheny, Randy Travis and even the Simpsons, on 1990's The Simpsons Sing the Blues.

Even at what he says is a slowed pace, King continues to work harder than many musicians who are decades younger. Clearly, the thrill is very much alive for music's new octogenarian.

Billboard: Did you ever imagine you'd still be doing this when you turned 80?

B.B. King: (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 just died. Mr. [John] Johnson in Chicago, the man who started the first black magazines like Ebony and Jet, he died. We just lost Luther Vandross a few weeks ago, and Little Milton a few days ago.

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 'til Saturday night, like you're a vampire. (laughs) But what about Sunday, Monday, Tuesday...

Why do you think blues can't 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.

What was your first recording contract like?

My first record contract was with Modern Records; they were starting a new label called RPM, and Ike Turner at the time was kind of a scout for them. Ike and I knew each other, so he introduced me and that was my first recording contract. I had recorded prior to that, for a company out of Nashville called Bullet; I recorded four sides for them, but no contract.

How has the label business changed, since you signed with Modern?

Well, they've changed quite a bit. How can I put it -- they're a little more liberal than they once were. You can get a better percentage today for your records and such. A lot of the new young people, black, white or otherwise, today have ideas about their own production companies and their own music companies and so on, so they're able to make better deals than we could at the time. And that's helped those of us that didn't make much money earlier on, too.

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)

Rolling Stone recently named you the No. 3 guitarist of all time, behind Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman. How did you feel about that?

Well, I liked it very much. But had they asked me, I wouldn't have put me up that high. I would've thought that Eric Clapton and a few other's would've gone ahead of me there. But since they said it, hallelujah!

How did you develop your playing style?

I could like 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 ukelele 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're 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 batter. 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.

What kinds of changes have you experienced in the touring world over all these years?

Well, today I can afford to get a bus for my band and I, and sometimes, if necessary, we can fly, and we used to couldn't do that. My early years I used to take the Greyhound bus from one job to another, then finally we got a car. But now I've got a modern bus that we all sit and ride in. I keep two drivers for safety. And, of course, the people come out to see us. That makes a big difference. We're considered artists, now, and they treat us like we are.

How about equipment and technical accommodations at the venues?

Well, I haven't gone as high-tech as a lot of people have, with the exception that we have electrified instruments like the guitar and the keyboards. And the sound system. But that's about it.

Other than that we don't have a lot of other things like a lot of other modern groups do. It's easy to carry around. In our bus we have our whole everything together.

Your new album is another duets album with a bunch of very well-known artists and friends. What do you get out of those albums that's different from doing an album 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, goodwill and, I think a good CD.

Do you have a wish list of people you'd 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 Indanola?

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.

Are you giving them a lot of stuff to display there?

Oh yes, quite a bit. You might even get a chance to see two or three Lucilles there.

Your nightclubs are becoming quite a success story, too.

Well, the nightclubs, in the first place, I don't own them -- but I wish I did. They use my name, and I've got a little money in them. They're doing well; we have six of them right now, and they're doing real well. Maybe one day I'll make enough money to own one of them. (laughs)

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 two 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.

But what do you feel sets blues apart from other styles of music.

I believe blues music is like any other type of music, really. The only thing is we don't paint pictures in blues music like a lot of people do in other popular songs. Tony Bennett and so many others, they would paint a beautiful picture of the woman by the brook and there's the glowers and the meadow and so on, and finally you get to the point of wanting to take the woman's hand. We don't go that far; "Baby, I love you. Can we get married?" (laughs) We're not as eloquent in the words.

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?