Sometimes, when a phone interview falls through at the last minute, as my originally scheduled one with blues legend B.B. King did, that’s it, game over. And sometimes, you then score a second interview, often right up against your deadline, and it winds up being so good, you find yourself thankful for all the heartache of having the first one evaporate out from under you.
Case in point.
The venerable Beale Street Blues Boy, his highness the down-home gentleman King of the Blues, died May 14, 2015, at age 89, after a long stretch of declining health. My first thought, selfish, I admit, was that I had once had the incredible privilege to share a little of what felt like very personal time, if only by phone, with this man, this gem, this star, who ranks among the single-nicest folks I have ever interviewed.
My second thought was exactly the same.
Originally published Dec. 9, 2004 in The Daily Reflector | (c) 2004 Cox Newspapers, Inc.
His majesty, the blues
At 79, music royalty B.B. King has become the style he plays
What’s a music legend to do if he keeps hearing that people think he’s dead?
In the case of B.B. King, he simply does what he’s always done: He shows up, and he plays.
And then the next day, he shows up at another venue. And once again, he plays.
It’s been the venerable bluesman’s formula for upward of 50 years now, and it lands him at the Edgecombe Community College auditorium in Tarboro Monday. (If you’re not one of the lucky 1,100 people with tickets, get ready to sing your own blues: The show is sold out.)
He’ll show up. He’ll play.
In 1956 alone, King charged through 342 shows in the same number of nights. Which equals exactly two weeks off. For the whole year.
“When you’re young, you’re daring,” he says by phone from a recent West Coast tour stop. “You don’t pay much attention to it. It’s fun going from place to place.”
And yet here he is now at 79, still typically performing in excess of 200 shows a year.
King, a longtime diabetic, has only just returned to the road after a few weeks off following cataract surgery on one eye (he’ll have the other done in January).
So when he’s heard the idea punted – and re-punted – around that the blues is going through this or that revival, it mystifies him.
“I remember quite often disc jockeys coming to me and sayin’, ‘B., I’m so glad (for) the resurgence of the blues …,’” King relates.
“I said, ‘Resurgence?’ I didn’t finish high school, but resurgence to me means like somethin’ was and then it wasn’t, and then it’s back again.
“And I ain’t been nowhere,” he says.
He’s showed up. He’s played.
BLUES HISTORY, the Cliffs Notes:
The genre grew like a wild vine out of the Mississippi delta around the turn of the 20th century, a tangle of black gospel, slave- and Reconstruction-era work songs and field hollers, and African rhythms, string-instrument styles and chanting.
The blues existed solely within the African-American community for years, the province of house parties and limited black-targeted radio stations, until a generation of post-war British white kids saw the wonder in this distinctly American form, fashioning from it much of the very first rock ‘n’ roll.
When bands like The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin exploded on this side of the Atlantic in the 1960s, they fed middle America back a distilled, and largely ignored, piece of its own complex history.
Then in the mid-’70s, mainstream music tastes shifted dramatically toward country-rock and disco.
“A lot of rock ‘n’ roll groups stopped playing (the blues), see, so a lot of the guys that were listening thought it was gone,” King says. “But it hadn’t been anyplace.
“The point I’m tryin’ to get over is that if I don’t go places and play to the people, they think I’m dead,” he adds. “They think that I’m not around, and that this music is not there (anymore).”
Which makes it sound like King thinks the blues has become his own responsibility. In fact, he does. But don’t mistake this attitude for arrogance.
Our frenetic pop culture throws the word “humble” around so much and so often that it retains about as much currency as does “genius.” In music, Ray Charles was indeed a genius, just as King truly is the very essence of modesty.
He can’t even tell you how many Grammy Awards he’s won. Some sources cite 18, though King thinks it’s got to be several less. And he finds the suggestion riotously funny that owning so many of the statuettes, he might use one or two of them as doorstops. Because he’d never think to do such a thing.
Yet this high school dropout can tell you every school, college or university that has bestowed honors upon him in his life. He doesn’t even try to disguise his pride in those accolades.
But before absolutely losing sight of the word “genius,” it’s useful to kick it around a little right here.
King has drawn plenty of heat through the years from so-called “blues purists” who resent his willful embrace of everything from gospel to rock and R&B.
He’s drawn flack, too, for the sheen of sophistication he brings to his art, the sometimes candy-apple production that has over-sweetened sections of his studio work all the way back to his first recordings in the 1950s.
“I think that everything I’ve done, there’s never been a perfect record,” he says. “But I think in every (album) I’ve ever made, if you listen closely, there is some good work in it.”
And in this is his peculiar form of genius.
King is, as he has noted throughout his career, very good at being B.B. King, the best. And while that sounds like self-deprecation and short-shrift praise, it’s anything but.
He readily cites guitarist after guitarist he thinks is more proficient than himself, yet he’s the guy who’s set the standard for the stinging, bent-note blues lead. Last year, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him the No. 3 guitarist of all time, and he has among his devoted the superlative Buddy Guy, and British six-string hero Eric Clapton. You can also credit – or blame – King for current white-kid wunderkinds like Johnny Lang.
More than that, King has given us our working definition of the blues, as a good-time music about hard-times. Historically, icons like Robert Johnson are far more important, and the later Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters truer to the genre’s roots. But King has now carried the standard across this country and around the world so well for so long that he is the standard.
He has that rare distinction of having come to embody the style of music that he plays. As Louis Armstrong had become, in his later years, the unofficial Ambassador of Jazz, so too has Riley B. “Blues Boy” King become our very own Ambassador of the Blues.
YOU CANNOT separate talent from its time. King’s skills as guitarist, singer (his warm baritone is a marvelous instrument) and songwriter are extraordinary, but part of his success he owes to being the right personality at just the right moment.
Whereas late icons like Muddy and the Wolf maintained a kind of roughness that fans hold now in great reverence, King has, for all his country ways, a natural polish about him.
“You’re not gonna believe this,” he says. “My mother died when I was 9, but while she was alive, she thought that I would grow up to be a nice young Southern gentleman.
“What a mistake!”
To put it simply, King is incredibly easy to like.
His background is salt-of-the-earth. A sharecropper’s son, he hitchhiked out of his native small-town Mississippi barely an adult, bound for Memphis with only a couple bucks between him and the streets. Once in the Southern music mecca, he worked doggedly, juggling both a radio show and regular live performances.
Too, he’s hardly an excessive man.
There’s never been the public drug spectacle of, say, a Charlie Parker, or the venomous righteousness of the older Miles Davis. Unlike so many classic-rock stars, King has never publicly squandered heaps of money. Alcohol lost interest for him years ago, and he quit smoking immediately after the surgeon general first declared it detrimental to health, back in 1964.
There’s only one “vice” left, he notes with a chuckle.
“I’ve always loved girls,” he says. “I still do, and I’m 79 years old. They’re God’s greatest creation, I believe. They go, for me, from 20 to 78; I don’t want nobody 79.
“I’m 79,” King adds with a chuckle. “I don’t want nobody that old.”