When: Mid-1970s. This is a tough one to pin down. I just can’t remember.
Where: Las Vegas Hilton.
What: The record label had flown some writers to Las Vegas to watch B.B. perform. In interviewed the great man prior to his show. At the beginning of his performance he told the crowd that there was a special guest in the audience that night, a journalist from Los Angeles who had interviewed him earlier that day. I looked around to see who it might be and when he announced, “My good friend, Steven Rosen, please stand up and take a bow,” I could barely believe what was happening. Here was a man about to perform a major show in an upscale room in one of the ritziest hotels in Las Vegas, and he had the wherewithal to remember my name and introduce me to his audience. It was an extraordinary moment and said a lot about a man who has risen from a terrible life of poverty into a life of luxury and ease. And yet, still not too preoccupied to share the spotlight with a simple journalist.
Born Riley B. King
on a plantation in Indianola, Mississippi, the legendary blues guitarist is perhaps the most well known purveyor of the blues idiom currently playing. His career spans decades, his catalog of albums probably numbers in the hundreds, and to this day you can turn on television and find him hawking medicine for diabetes (from which he suffers) or turn on the radio and within an hour hear his standard, “The Thrill Is Gone
He recorded his first album in 1957, opened for The Rolling Stones in 1969, and now more than 50 years later, he has tallied up more than 15,000 live performances. This is no accident. King truly understands the cause and effect of the music business; he realizes it takes a great deal more than a stunning finger vibrato to exist for so many years. He knows there is a game to be played, a professionalism mixed with a certain amount of obsequiousness, and he has mastered the combination.
The time I spent with him was truly special. I’d go on to interview him again (maybe even twice, including one phoner) and he remembered me each time. His name may oftentimes be uttered in the same company as the other Kings - Freddie and Albert - and while those two are also true princes, there is absolutely only one King.
Oh, yeah, and if any of you remember the main piece that introduced you to the Rock Chronicles, you might recall me talking about exploding batteries? Well, this is the interview during which it happened. It must have been 108 degrees in Vegas and I’d been carrying my bag with me everywhere I went (I didn’t want to leave it in the room and don’t ask me why). I’d been outside for several hours before going to B.B.’s suite for our meeting. When I opened my little satchel in his room, one of the batteries had turned molten and disgorged Duracell guts all over the case. Luckily, it had not already been inserted into my $29 dollar cassette player, or I would have been forced to scurry back to an electronics store somewhere and buy a new one. And all this would have happened while B.B. is sitting there waiting for me to return and I didn’t have $29 on me anyway so … well, you get the idea. Be prepared. I was. I had an extra battery. I did burn the hell out of my fingers trying to clean up the metallic puke.
But I bore that like a trooper, like a pro. A red badge of courage (stupidity really, but …) attesting to my participation in the give-and-take of verbal jousting between a King and the court jester.
Do you ever find yourself at a loss in terms of what your fingers should be doing on the fretboard? That is, do you get tired of bringing out Lucille, playing blues songs and then going home for the evening?
I never do get tired of it because I never do get where I’m not hungry. Within the blues, you can play near jazz or very low down and play it funky. But it’s like picking a different menu every day through - the blues is a wide range of music one can do and still be within the blues. So you get many directions to go with the blues.
Who were some of the players that first influenced your guitar playing?
The first people I listened to was through was because of a young aunt I had. Some of her favorites was Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and those two I liked. Bobby Duvall and a whole lot of other names that I can’t even remember today. But later on I liked jazz and liked a guy called Charlie Christian, and then later on, Django Reinhardt, and that really did it. Those were my bibles, you might say, and I lived by them religiously.
Have you changed a lot since you were a little blues player back in the day?
I hope so because if it’s no different than I haven’t learned anything. The basics are still the same and I think that’ll be as long as you have hungry people. And I believe as long as you got some black ones and some whites ones and some red ones and some yellow ones.
Are you still hungry today like you were back then?
Yes, he gets hungry now; he sure do! Even though my name may be talked about quite often, things are still not open for the blues singer like B.B. King yet. There are a lot of places that still I cannot play. Well, for instance there are many of the main rooms (in Las Vegas) that I haven’t played but I can’t go into. It seem to us by our own calculation that only 10 per cent will of heard of the name B.B. King. So I’ve got a whole 90 per cent of people to go yet. Other words, I’m known by quite a few but it’s still very small. Don’t get me wrong - I dig playin’ the lounges but I would like to go into the main rooms. There were people like Ann-Marget (actress/signer) and her husband (Roger Smith) who took me in with them into one of the main rooms and we did a good job. But there are others who say, 'No, not with me.’
So when did you actually first start playing guitar?
I must have been about twelve or thirteen. It was a sanctified preacher that was my uncle’s brother-in-law and he was a pastor and he played guitar in church. Usually on Sunday afternoon he would come over to my uncle’s home for dinner. And it was an old custom in the South where we lived that the adults would have dinner first and then the kids would eat later. So when they went in to have dinner, he would lay his guitar on the bed and that’s where I would spend the rest of the night - on the bed with the guitar. Finally, one night he caught me - he didn’t scold me but taught me three chords that I use today: C - F and G.
Were you singing before you became a guitar player? Or did you learn to sing to be able to accompany yourself as a vocalist?
Well, I started singing spirituals; my mother started me singing them when I was about three or four. I used to sing them in church with her. Then my mother passed when I was nine and I started singing I quartets and I kept singing in them until I went in the Army when I was 18. I still have the same feeling singing the blues as I did singing the spirituals: when the band is really clickin’ and everybody is playing very good, I feel just as good playin’ my blues as I did singing spirituals in church. To me the only difference is the words; the feeling is the same.
That’s intriguing because you don’t really play while you’re singing.
Well, I feel what I do. I have stupid fingers; they won’t work while I’m singing. It’s true. I’m kinda like a numbskull. I cannot play and sing at the same time.
Your technique is very much like someone singing - very basic and melodic and lyrical.
It seem like when I say (play,) that is melodic, it has its own rhythmic pattern so even a violin that has a long sound every once in a while you have stops. Well, the same thing with me and my voice; when I stop singing, I can hear that something else should be there and that’s when I can hear the guitar trying to back up my voice, trying to back up something that I’ve just sang. And now without my guitar, I am lost on stage; really lost. I can play without singing but I can hardly sing without playing. I don’t care what band I’m working with, there’s gonna be sometimes where there’s gonna be a slack, a lag, so I may stomp my feet. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Ray Charles work or not but he carries his own rhythm. Well, so do I but I carry it in a funny way. When I’m movin’ or stompin’, I be wantin’ the band to do that and in most cases they don’t. It’s a rare thing to get everything going the way you want; if you could ever get that going, it’s just flying in an airplane - you’re up in the air and, oh boy!
You once described your playing as twinging - how do you define that? Were you the first guitarist to develop that sort of identifiable vibrato?
|"Things are still not open for the blues singer like B.B. King yet."|
I like many instruments; guitar is not the only instrument I like. It’s the only one I can play pretty well; but I’ve tried to play clarinet, violin, piano, bass, keep a little time on the drums, a little harmonica. But in the beginning I think - I can’t hear very well. Any very low notes don’t cut through to me, I miss 'em. So I play high (on the neck) all the time - that I can hear. Like the bass or the piano, if they play too low, I won’t know where it is. The treble on a guitar I can hear better but I hear a lot of guys playing - Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and many other guys - that is really playin’ good jazz; they play with a little bit more bass. It sounds good to me but I can’t make mine sound like that and sound good to me. I can’t play nothin’ like I want to and the sound that I hear I can’t get.
Is that the reason why a lot of those famous B.B. King high vibrato notes tend to land at the top of the neck?
Yeah, that I can hear. If the bass or piano plays too low, I won’t know where to hit. So the treble on the guitar I can hear better but people like Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, Kenny Burrell, and T-Bone Walker, they play with a sound nobody else gets. They put a little more bass on theirs and it sounds good to me but I can’t make mind sound good like that.
When I first started playing out, they [later] came out with the new Fender guitar (presumably an Esquire or Telecaster) and that started to help me develop my sound.
So you actually began playing a Fender?
No, they hadn’t started making Fenders then; there wasn’t no Fender company. My first electric was a black Gibson with a De Armand pickup on it. I believe that preacher I talked about had a Silvertone.
This was ’38 or ’39. And then I started working with the Lucille guitar. The longest I ever kept one was about twelve years and somebody ripped me off in New York. I’ve had at least 10 Lucille-model guitars. Later I went on to pay a red Gibson stereo model (ES355TD). I liked the neck on it and (because he tends to play up in the higher registers), I can get to that last position in a hurry. And the position of the tone controls are good.
Are you concerned with picks and strings?
I use Fender Rock 'n’ Roll strings because it has an unwound G string. And I usually play medium-to-stiff picks made of tortoise shell.
Any particular amplifier you usually run through?
A Fender Twin Reverb; I like durability and sound. I don’t care too much about volume. I want it when I want it but I like a mellow sound. I like the tone quality. I use one amp with two channels for a stereo effect; I put one channel on bass and the other on treble, both full up. And when I play, I mix them on how I want to hear something. But mainly I use the tone controls on my guitar for that.
Any other special techniques or tricks someone wanting to copy your style should know?
Well, my (finger) vibrato is pretty distinctive and the way I phrase. I phrase and then use a trill on my left hand. There weren’t many dong that when I started. My style is a mixture of people, people like Blind Lemon, Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, and my cousin Bukka White. Some of the people I mentioned earlier, are people I learned from. Some of them used a slide but I never could. So I had to trill with my left hand. With my left hand, I actually push and pull but with an even tempo. It’s not something I pick, just a vibrato.
I pick the guitar near the bridge that creates a real clear treble tone. If I want something mellower, I play closer so it’s between the pickups. And the action on Lucille is very low. As you know, my Lucille guitars are Gibson 335s. I play so low that when I play a chord, like an F chord, sometimes the strings will rattle if I play too hard.
Do you have to be in a particular mood to play well? If your amp is acting up and the guitar isn’t feeling right, can you still play the blues?
Yes, I can play the blues anytime and it doesn’t matter what mood I’m in. That’s been with me all my life. But I do play according to the mood I’m in. There are times when something has happened, I’m feeling good or whatever, so I play according to the feeling I’m in. I can play the blues anytime because it’s been a practice, something that I’ve lived.
One doesn’t think of you as a speedy guitar player. But certainly you must have worked on the fluidity and the manner in which you connect notes?
Playing as long as I have, the speed kind of stays with you once you become accomplished. I do scales, major and minor, ten or fifteen minutes every day. When I say fifteen minutes, it’s usually longer because my guitar gets sounding good to me. As I play scales a lot of my ideas come to me. I never go out on a limb on stage. The only time that I go out on a limb is during a jam session. Other than that, I play what I know I can while on stage.
Is there value in having a teacher? Or is the best education listening to other players and turning on the radio?
Get yourself a teacher, take music lessons, and learn everything that you can about your instrument. Later on you’ll be qualified to play whatever you want. Even though a guy may want to play the blues just like me, he shouldn’t start out just playing; he should take lessons. Learn your instrument; learn to read music. I can read, but very slowly. I never had any music in school but ever since then I’ve really studied. I’ve bought books, books and more books. Cats shouldn’t just try to play, they should learn as much as they can.
Does there come a point when it just becomes an exercise? That you just go through the motions?
I have my good and bad nights. There are some nights that I don’t feel that I’m really into it. Maybe my guitar doesn’t sound good to me or the auditorium has bad acoustics. But I love to play and I give it everything I’ve got every time I’m onstage.
For that reason, electric blues players like Johnny Winter and Mike Bloomfield cite you as an essential influence. They give you a lot of credit, and rightly so, in terms of turning the blues from a very regionalized music into one of the most popular forms around.
Umm hmm (nods in affirmation). That does make me feel very good. I really dig Mike and Johnny and in fact, I even learn from them now. I learn new types of chords and chord changes that I never used and I got it from those guys. They didn’t show me anything as such but by playing with them and hearing them play, I pick up new progressions. I get back to my room after jamming with those guys and some of the progressions sound pretty good. Johnny’s a good friend of mine and he’s a fine musician.
Even Muddy Waters admits to the fact that you have more influence over players than he does. How does that make you feel?
|"I can play without singing but I can hardly sing without playing."|
Well, I know a lot of things that I have played I’ve learned by listening to the radio and the records that kids were playing. I do hear a lot of my riffs in what they’re playing though. That’s another problem I have, getting the right records played on the radio and on television. A lot of times, my records have to be voted on to see if they’ll be played or not; I’ve had disc jockeys tell me that. Because of the blues, the type of blues that I play. That is a fact; maybe it’s because I’m B.B. King. I’m lucky, luckier than a lot of my colleagues because I do get records played. The last time I had something played across the board was 'The Thrill Is Gone.’ Since then we’ve got sporadic plays; this station will play one and this station will play another. In other words, if I get a record in the Top 100 or Top 50, it’s not played on all the stations. The reason I know that is that I monitor stations from coast to coast.
When you opened for the Rolling Stones, did that open you up to a new audience?
Yes, it did. I had many people come up to me and tell me they’d never heard of me, they wanted to know if I made records, and by that time I’d made about 40 records. All of my career, I couldn’t get drunk if I wanted to; I don’t smoke grass but if I wanted to the first thing they’d say would be, 'That ol’ B.B. King, he’s a blues singer, he gets tore up, gets smashed.’ So all my career I had to be as s cool as I can because everybody talks about the blues singer. My whole career, I had to think about the next guy who’s coming behind me. If I felt like calling somebody an SOB and I’ve gotten mad enough to do it. But I can’t because I’m thinking about the guy to follow me.
How do you feel about the work you did with Bobby 'Blue’ Bland? You recorded several albums together including Together For the First Time …Live in November, 1974, and Together Again … Live two years later.
I was very excited about those; I think if we’d (Bland and King) had a chance to talk, I don’t mean talk and rehearse the things, but just talk about the kind of things that we were gonna do, it would be even better than it was. We did several things where both bands joined in; this is what I wanted to be done on anything we did together. I don’t think all the guys in the band understood or they just didn’t give a darn. I wanted the big band sound on some of the things and on others, I just wanted a rhythm section.
Where did the original idea for those albums come from?
I think Otis Smith (ABC/Dunhill Records) decided that he wanted to do it for the company because Bobby Bland had just came to the company and I’d been with them since ’59 or ’60. In fact, I wanted to do one for a long time with Bobby and I wanted to do one with Ray Charles. Anybody that sang or played blues, I’d like to do one with. But I think Bobby is one of the greatest singers. I usually say about Bobby that he’s not a blues singer, he’s a singer who sings the blues. Some of us, like myself, I can’t sing anything but the blues but Bobby can sing anything he wants.
Do you change your style depending on what type of audience you’re playing to? I mean, if you were playing the Fillmore with a bunch of stoned rockers, would you approach it differently than if you were sitting in a small club with a hundred very serious blues enthusiasts?
I don’t change my style at all when I play for white audiences or whatever. I play the same thing at the Fillmore that I would at Joe’s Bar down across the tracks. The crowd response, by the way, at the Fillmore, was great. They give their total attention.
And what attention do you give to the type of music you record? How much time do you spend in trying to create new twists and turns on the blues idiom?
I’ll keep on doing the blues. Each decade that I play, I still sing the blues but I use a rhythmic background that is toward whatever is happening at that particular time. When boogie-woogie was strong, we used a little of a boogie background. On an album, I still sing the blues but there may be a little bit of a soul beat or a rock beat.
Do you have any long-term plans regarding your career? Would you like to do more than keep touring and recording?
Well, what I want to do now is to put a television s how together featuring blues and blues artists. I think that could be one of the reasons we’re not played on the radio.; Because they don’t know that we exist or some of them (DJs) may be even ashamed of the kind of music because it’s not exposed that much and they would feel if they played it, somebody might look down on them because they’re playin’ it. Spirituals is dead or dyin’ out too because nobody played 'em either, so I think that there’s a close relation between blues and spirituals. There are many great people who are playin’ and survivin’ but there are very few people in key spots who can let other people know about them. For instance, Muddy Waters to me is one of the greatest there ever been (born McKinley Morganfield on April 4, 1915, Muddy died on April 30, 1983). But if he walked down the street in my neighborhood and ask, 'Do you know Muddy Waters?’ Half of 'em would say, 'No.’
To answer your question, I would like to have a television show on; in fact I’m fixin’ to put together a pilot (test show). The only thing now except maybe Lawrence Welk (bandleader with a weekly variety show that played mainly standard big band arrangements) is pretty much the same thing; it’s either soul or rock. You don’t even hear much jazz anymore. Well, I like soul and I like rock but I think there’s room for something else and I think it has to be somebody who’s not afraid or ashamed to put it out. I don’t know whether we’ll sell it or not; I hope we can. There must be a market out there for it because if there isn’t, why am I still out here?
A lot of times people seem to think if you’re a blues singer you can’t wear vests, you can’t wear tuxes. I feel I should be allowed to do it because other people do. Do you understand what I mean? All of my career, I couldn’t get drunk if I wanted to; I don’t smoke grass but if I wanted to smoke grass I couldn’t smoke it because the first thing they’d say would be, 'That old B.B. King, he’s one of 'dem blooze singers; he gets tore up, smashed.’ So all of my career, I had to try my best to be as cool as I can because everybody talks about the blues singer. Not thinkin’ too much about me because I’ve enjoyed my life but I’m thinking about the guys comin’ behind me.
Even with all your success, you are aware that people still see you and treat you differently than if you were a white guitarist?
|"I don't change my style at all when I play for white audiences or whatever."|
Yeah; all of my career, I’ve always had to think about the next guy that’s comin’, whether I come in here to the Flamingo or the Hilton or anywhere. If I felt like calling somebody an s.o.b., I couldn’t do it. I’ve got mad enough to do it and I felt like I should do it sometimes.
This is one of the reasons why I still want to get this show out if I can. It would be something like an adult Sesame Street. Not a Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas type variety show but each week I would feature somebody that’s in the blues but I would also feature a person in a different field of music; like Joe Cocker or Sly and The Family Stone, or Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin. But I would like to have Lightnin’ Hopkins or Muddy Waters or Joe Turner (this interview pre-dated Waters’ passing).
I’d ask Stevie or Muddy, for instance, why they play their particular music and that kind of thing so the kids, especially black kids, would be able to identify because a lot of times I feel the3 black kids don’t know as much about the blues singers as the white kids. And I found that a true thing when I first went to London.
It’s just that the black kids never hear it. You can go here in the city today and you won’t hear a Muddy Waters or a Lightnin’ Hopkins song but you will hear a Sly, you will hear a Stevie, and you will hear many others. For instance, I used to be good and boo’d a lot when my band was playin’ for a star. I used to go out with Jackie Wilson, I went out with Sam Cooke, I went out with Curtis Mayfield, and my band used to back them up. But whenever they would say, 'B.B. King,’ they’d (audience) would say, 'Boo!’ And I hadn’t even gone on stage and they didn’t even know it was my band playin’ for the star. The reason for it was just like it is today - they wouldn’t play B.B. King on the radio. When the kids heard it, they thought it was mom and dad music so when I got on stage, I’d have to work very fast. That’s why now, I’m right out of one song into another and that’s because I didn’t want to give people a chance to boo. So I’m used to that; it’s kind of like a fighter getting knocked down - you get to a point where you’re punchy.
Have you ever had your musician friends comment on your performing in Las Vegas (there was a time when playing in Vegas was akin to selling out your creative principles)?
You know, I’ve been ribbed by some of my friends who say, 'Why do you play in Vegas?’ and I say, 'Well, I get paid.’ And the next thing is when you play Vegas you’re liable to play to an audience that never even heard of you; then the next show you may be lucky and one half of 'em may have heard of you. And the next show maybe everybody know about you. So you can never go on the stage here in Vegas and say, 'I’m the king’ because there’s liable to be somebody who don’t know you from Adam. Each time you go on stage, you got to prove you’re an artist, buddy, you got to put down, you tot to put it out. Each time you go on stage, it’s a challenge, anywhere you play.
And I know it’s been told before, but we have to hear the story of how Lucille found her name.
I was in Twist, Arkansas, and while I was playing there one night the place caught on fire and I ran back in trying to save my guitar. And I almost lost my life trying to save it. We found the two guys who started the fire and they were fighting about a lady named Lucille. I never did meet her but I named my guitar Lucille and that reminded me not to do anything like that again. It’s a whole story I tell on an album called Lucille.
2008 © Steven Rosen