wed 19/05/2021

BB King: 'I play the way I'm feeling' | reviews, news & interviews

BB King: 'I play the way I'm feeling'

BB King: 'I play the way I'm feeling'

Recalling an encounter with the great blues guitarist who inspired Jagger, Clapton and Bono

B B King was the greatest blues guitarist of the age. Many contemporary rockers credit him as a formidable inspiration, from Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton to Bono. But when I met him in 2006, the then 83-year-old musician had a different perspective on his ability. "I don't think it's true," he says with a shrug. "A lot of kids tease me when they see me, they start to bow. I'm not trying to stop them. I think I'm a pretty good musician, I don't think I'm the best, that's all. I just do what I do my way."

When I point out that he's often hailed as the second-most gifted guitarist of all time, after Jimi Hendrix, he shakes his head. "Well that's very nice, but if you ask me, I would put Eric Clapton and a few others ahead of me. Eric is the number one rock 'n' roll guitarist and in my opinion he also plays the blues better than a lot of us. And I can tell you this, I consider him as a great friend, he's a wonderful man, what we call in Mississippi 'free-hearted'."

The comment is typical of the musician, who seems happier discussing his friends, than dwelling on his own accomplishments. But there is little argument about his influence. BB King has essentially defined the blues for half a century. He is one of the most important electric guitarists in recent history. It may be a cliché to refer to an ageing musician as iconic or legendary, but there's really no other way to describe the man who started out life as a dirt-poor sharecropper.

I'm a black guy. White groups from England , naturally people are going to look to them before me

We are meeting in a Los Angeles hotel suite and King arrives in a wheelchair, accompanied by a considerable entourage, including one of his sons, Willie King, who's his manager, a nephew and a grandson. He is a bulky, imposing figure with snowy hair, dressed in a loose, silk Hawaiian patterned shirt. Diabetes makes it difficult for him to walk, but he eases himself slowly up, walks across the room and greets me with a hug (though this is the first time we've met), before settling into an armchair and opening a can of Diet Coke.

The obvious discomfort he's suffering is the only ostensible sign that King is slowing down. He continues to give at least 200 performances a year, with his trademark Gibson guitar "Lucille" (all his guitars are called Lucille). "Each night I play as if I have never played the songs before," he says. "I play the way I'm feeling, not note for note the way I recorded the songs. The music still feels good to me and that's all that matters. I don't feel 80," he says, "I can hardly tell the difference. There are plans for me to cut down, but I'm happy doing what I do and if I don't keep on going, they'll forget me," he smiles.

That is unlikely to happen. He has sold more than 40 million records, there have been countless awards over the years and there is considerable interest in a Hollywood biopic based on his life. But King has an ambivalent attitude towards the accolades and honours, which is understandable. He never received widespread recognition until the late Sixties, when mostly British rock musicians began to appreciate his music. His 2000 album with Eric Clapton, Riding with the King, won a Grammy - one of 14 he's received so far. But apart from one monster hit "The Thrill Is Gone", in 1970, none of his songs has achieved mainstream chart success. "I'm not white, I'm a black guy. White groups from England or wherever, naturally they're going to get played and people are going to look to them before me. They have all the radio and TV stations, something people like me have never had access to."

King has a pragmatic approach to collaborating with big names. Clapton is one of the contemporary stars who recorded a series of duets with him, for his most recent album B.B. King & Friends 80 (which also won a Grammy). The other musicians included Van Morrison, Roger Daltry, Elton John and Gloria Estefan. "I made the album with them," he grins, "well, because they're popular, I also like what they do."

An only child, he was born Riley B King in 1925, in a sharecropper's cabin in Indianola, Mississippi. His father Albert and mother Nora Ella divorced when he was four. Fiercely close to his mother, the little boy was soon picking cotton, earning 35 cents a day. "When you have only had coffee you don't know what tea tastes like," he says. "I couldn't compare my life on the plantation with anything else." As with so many black blues artists, King's passion for music began in church. "My mother was very religious and I enjoyed church a lot too, specially when the girls were there," he says.

King and his mother attended services at The Church of God In Christ, and the local preacher, Archie Fair, who was also a relative, became his mentor. "He played the first electric guitar I ever heard. Where I lived at the time, we didn't have electricity till I was 16 years old, so even if I could have afforded an electric guitar, I wouldn't have been able to play one. But I loved hearing our pastor play and I loved gospel singing, I love it even today. The structure of the music is like rock and roll. It's like rhythm and blues."

As a child, he had little time to enjoy R'n'B. King was nine when his mother became ill, probably with pneumonia, although there was never a clear diagnosis. She was 25. "She called me to her deathbed, and it did make an impression because it was only me, I had no sisters or brothers," he says. "I had no one really close to me who I could depend on and my mother seemed to be one of a kind to me. She told me, 'If you treat people nice you will always have somebody to help you, there will always be somebody on your side.' Just before she died, she went blind, but to me she was always a very beautiful lady." He speaks slowly and quietly, "I get sad because I don't have a picture of her. I've never been in trouble in my life. I probably would have been, but I always remembered the things she told me. She really wanted me to be a preacher, to stay in the church," he says, "but knowing her as I think I did, I believe she would've allowed me to pursue any career, as long as it wasn't hurting anyone."

After her death, King's grandmother also died and instead of moving in with his father, he stayed at the plantation where he'd been living with his mother. He earned his keep, milking cows and doing household chores for the owner, Flake Cartledge. Still intending to respect his mother's wishes and become a preacher, King found that music consumed him. "I lived by myself in the little servant's quarters," he says. "I was what you call a house boy, I made $15 a month and that's how I paid for my first guitar. Flake took half my salary one month and half the next month and we went to buy it together."

During his teens, King moved in with his father for a while, then at 15 he left home and got a job as a tractor driver on another plantation. "I never stopped playing music," he says. "I used to sit on the street corners after work. Usually I would sing gospel songs because I wanted to be a preacher like my pastor. But I discovered that if I sang a gospel song, they'd pat me on the head but never put anything in the hat. When a guy asked me to play something bluesy, a lot of times I never even knew what that was, but I would change 'my Lord' to 'my baby'; then they would always give me a tip. So I would drive the tractor Monday through Saturday afternoon, then go to town, sit on the street corners and play and sometimes I'd maybe make $100 in one evening."

He began playing black clubs, but struggled financially, because even in his own community, there was a mixed reception to his music. "A lot of my people from home, from Mississippi, got on my case and would say, 'you're playing the devil's music', I would think to myself, 'When I was pickin' cotton was I pickin' the devil's cotton?' I was doing the same as I'm trying to do now, just making a living."

After the war, King moved to Memphis where he became a DJ. Known initially as "Blues Boy", his name was shortened to BB. He started performing regularly and was soon making a name in the R'n'B world throughout the States.

While his professional life flourished, King's personal life was unsettled and often turbulent. Married twice, he has 15 children and has had "many" relationships. "I know I was wild with women, I was foolish, I've always liked girls all my life. I've just gotten older," he says. "I'm not as active at anything as I once was but I'm not blind." Slightly defensive on the subjective of fatherhood, he says the constant pressure of touring made family responsibilities and commitments difficult. "I've done as much for my children as your father or anybody else's father would do and that means I try to take care of them and tell them things they should or shouldn't do. I haven't been the best father, but I love all of my children. And when I look back, I have no regrets. I didn't do dope of any kind other than liquor, like many others did," says King, who stopped drinking nearly 20 years ago. "I smoked cigarettes but only the ones that Uncle Sam taxed."

Currently based in Las Vegas, he still spends a large part of the year on a luxury tour bus and maintains that a rigorous schedule has always been essential to stay in the public eye. He's toured with Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and U2. "I have no envy at all of those people. Thank God for them," says King. "I'm grateful for the ones that do have a liking for me, they opened many doors for, and I could kiss their feet."

Does he think white middle-class people can really play the blues? "I tell you it's like this," he replies. "Many people have said to me, 'Do you have to pick cotton and suffer to play the blues?' And my answer is, 'No, but if you have it helps'," he roars with laughter. "I was told that the blues started with the slaves. A lot of the slave masters were teaching Christianity to the blacks because they thought if they were Christians they wouldn't steal or wouldn't run away. But some of them were going to be sold anyway, so they didn't care and would play and sing about things that made them happy and made them feel good. Or they would sing to let the others know the boss was coming. On nights when they didn't have to work, they would have parties and sing the blues. So I guess I'm a disciple of some of those slaves."

In terms of emotional trauma BB King has experienced the "blues", in a literal sense. Apart from his own personal struggles, he has witnessed rampant racism, even a lynching. "It hurt," he says. "It's like seeing a lion eat someone, what can you do about it? You don't want to get eaten yourself. There were cruel white people, but then there were others who were kind and didn't believe in that."

A practising Christian and a deeply spiritual man, King says his mother's religion and the moral values she instilled continue to be the guiding principles in his life. "I can't think of anyone I've mistreated. I've always thought that I am my brother's keeper. And I believe there's a 'great spirit' that takes care of all of us.

"I'll tell you something I don't think I've told anybody else. When I was going to church with my mother, the pastor made me feel a different way than anybody else. He made me feel that I could get a message to God. I didn't have that feeling again until five or six years ago. I was at the Vatican and had a chance to meet Pope John Paul. I felt that I could talk to God and tell him something, or that the Pope would give him my message. But I don't know what happens after this life," he says. "I haven't had my mother or anybody else come back and tell me. I think hell is hell on earth and heaven to me is a beautiful lady and enjoyment with her." He smiles. "But if there is a hereafter - I wish I could go there."

  • This interview was originally published in The Independent in March 2006.

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