An hour before his show, B.B. King relaxes in the back of his luxurious tour bus, his awe-inspiring hands resting atop a pile of tangled wires from his many electronic devices assembled on one table. At 78, the blues legend remains on the cutting edge of technology, as evidenced by his mastery of his Compaq laptop computer, mp3 audio player and satellite radio box.
Technology is just one of the numerous changes the former Mississippi sharecropper has witnessed while traveling the world, playing the blues over the last six decades. Born Sept. 16, 1925, on the bank of Blue Lake, near Itta Bena (pop. 2,208), in a segregated Mississippi, King’s boyhood home didn’t have electricity until he was a teenager. Although King is rarely seen without his trademark tuxedo, his childhood years were spent clad in worn, ripped overalls and shoes patched with a clamp designed for pigs’ snouts.
“If I had my life to live again, there’s not much I would change,” he says. “I would be born and grow up in the Delta on a plantation because there were a lot of good people there. I learned to live with them and work with people. I learned to take orders. I learned to get along. When I went into the Army, they said, ‘If you don’t know how to take orders, you can’t give them.’”
During his childhood, he soon learned that what mattered most in Mississippi was work. For $10 a month, he and his mother worked side by side in cotton and corn fields. By age 6, he was in charge of milking 10 cows every morning before embarking on his three-mile walk to a one-room schoolhouse. Before bedtime, there were another 10 cows to milk before his day’s work was done.
As long as he can remember, King heard other workers shouting in the fields, singing the blues about the heat of the sun, the darkness of the approaching clouds or the savory meal awaiting after a long day’s work. “No matter where you went, walking behind the plow or picking cotton, you’d be hearing beautiful voices,” he recalls. “People today call it field hollering.” King says his Uncle Jack’s voice could be heard from two or three miles away. “It just sounded good,” he says. “Most of the times I didn’t know what he was saying. I like the tone of the way it sounded, the melodic line of it.”
King disagrees with scholars who only associate the blues with tragedy and suffering. “As a little kid, the blues meant hope, excitement and pure emotion,” he says. “You could almost sum up the blues this way: 1. It’s something you like; 2. It’s something you dislike; 3. It’s something you wish was, or would like to have, or would like to be; and 4. Something that you wish wasn’t and wouldn’t be.
“The blues is something that has to do with people, places and things. Most men always sing about the ladies. What else is there? I think secretly that the ladies think the same thing about us. As long as we have people, places and things, we’ll always have the blues.”
Since King battled with stuttering when he was young, the blues offered a satisfying form of expression. “I can say what I’m trying to say through song and never be ashamed of it,” he says. “But if I had to sit here and say, ‘She’s down by the creek looking at the birds,’ I’d feel stupid saying that. Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole could say that and they’d say exactly what I wished I could say, but all of the singers couldn’t do that, especially blues singer. We’re straight to the point.”
Respect the blues
Although Congress declared 2003 as The Year of the Blues, King believes the blues still doesn’t get the respect it deserves. “Not yet, but I think we’re getting there,” he says, mentioning the recent seven-part series on PBS titled The Blues. “I think each century that it takes somebody, like those directors and producers, to bring out whatever was in the woodwork in front of the people so they can see it.
“Knowledge is power, education is power,” he says. “If you know something about something, you respect it. You might not like it, but you respect it. It all ties into where we came from and why the blues were then and why it is today.
“Listen, we’ve always paid attention to Brahms, Beethoven and Bach, and we still respect them, and some of them go back to the 14th and 15th centuries. But what about Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman and Glenn Miller? Why shouldn’t we know about them? When you analyze what they are doing, you’ll find some blues. Blues is deeply rooted in the many types of music today.”
While bluesman Robert Johnson has received mainsteam attention, King would like the spotlight to be spread on others too, including Louis Jordan, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson (“Lonnie Johnson was what I hope to be before I die”), T-Bone Walker (“the epitome of the blues”), both men known as Sonny Boy Williamson, and Bobby “Blue” Bland, who is King’s personal favorite.
For decades, King was disturbed by the stereotype many held of a blues singer: “a guy sitting on a big bucket with a jug of corn liquor sitting beside him, a guitar laying across his right leg, a cigarette hanging on his lip and pants that were ripped half-open.” He says, “It’s a big myth and it hurts me deeply that they think of us like that, so I’ve tried most of my life not to fit anywhere near that category that I feel people felt.”
“My cousin Booker White used to say, ‘If you want to be a blues singer, try always to look like you were going to the bank to borrow money,’ and that is, you want to look and act your best, because if you didn’t, they wouldn’t talk to you, and I’ve always tried to remember that.”
No slowing down
King has always set high standards, both musically and appearance-wise, as he’s released about 80 albums and traveled to 90 countries, performing with artists such as Luciano Pavarotti, Eric Clapton, U2, Stevie Wonder and John Lee Hooker. The high school dropout has received honorary doctorates from Yale University and the Berklee College of Music. He’s been inducted into both the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Not content to rest on his laurels, he shows no sign of slowing down. The Las Vegas resident still plays about 200 shows a year. Diabetes has left him with bad knees, so now he sits in a simple metal chair onstage as he cradles Lucille, his large-bodied electric guitar, and passionately croons, “Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jiving too.”
Last year marked King’s 40th anniversary of returning home to Mississippi to play a free concert in Indianola (pop. 12,066). “I do it now because when I was growing up, I didn’t have anyone that we could look up to. The only newspapers we saw that had a black person in it had committed some kind of a crime or was accused of it, except Joe Lewis and one lady who was an educator.
“But now when I was down there, 5-year-old, 7-year-old, 12-year-old kids say, ‘Hey B.B., how you doing?’ I get so proud because I can see them being proud little people, when I was quite timid. I didn’t feel nobody really cared whether we lived or died. Today, they don’t think like that. Today, when I go down there, I feel like I bring courage to all of them. I’m a great-grandfather and I feel like the grandfather of them. It makes me feel real proud.”