Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 30, 1999
Head: B.B. King on a Lifetime of the Blues
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
BARBARA BOGEAV, GUEST HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is FRESH AIR.
Terry Gross is out today. I'm Barbara Bogeav.
On today's FRESH AIR, we begin our week-long music series with two kings of the blues. We start with the great guitarist and singer B.B. King. He grew up a sharecropper's son in Mississippi. And in the '20s, before B.B. King got his first guitar, there was Robert Johnson, known as the king of the delta blues singers. We'll talk with his biographer, Peter Guralnick.
The blues coming up on today's FRESH AIR.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
B.B. KING (SINGING): Every day I have the blues / Oh, every day, every day I have the blues / When you see me (INAUDIBLE) baby, it's you I hate to lose.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
BOGEAV: First the news.
BOGEAV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogeav, in for Terry Gross.
Today we kick off a week of blues from our archives.
(AUDIO CLIP - BLUES GUITAR)
BOGEAV: B.B. King is the world's best-known living blues musician and arguably the best living blues guitarist. He's been recording since 1949 and has remained true to his style through countless shifts in the pop music world. His personal story is tied to an important chapter in Southern history, as well as music history. He was a sharecropper's son who worked on a Mississippi plantation until he was a young man and made his way to Memphis.
Terry spoke with him in 1996 after the publication of his autobiography, "Blues All Around Me." We're listening to his 1972 recording "Five Long Years."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
KING (SINGING): If you've ever been mistreated, then you know just what I'm talkin' about / If you've ever been mistreated, people, oh, you know just what I'm talkin' about / I tell you, I worked, I worked five long years for a woman, and she had the nerve (ph) to put me out / You know, I got a job at a steel mill truckin' steel like a slave / Five long years every Friday, I went straight home with all of my pay / You ever been mistreated, people? Then you know just what I'm talkin' about / I tell you, I worked, I worked five long years for a woman, and she had the nerve (ph) to put me out.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
TERRY GROSS, HOST, FRESH AIR: B.B. King, what was your very first guitar (INAUDIBLE)
KING: My very first guitar was a little red guitar, about two and a half feet long. I had a hole in the center, and it was this -- it was made by a company called Stella (ph). And it was red.
GROSS: Did you think that was cool or silly?
KING: No, I thought this was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me. A guitar made your sound, you plucked the strings. Man, how much -- you know, how much more heaven can you have? That's the way it seemed to me at the time. Believe it or not, I still hear the sound of that -- that sound, if you will, through the guitar that I play today.
GROSS: You hear the sound of that very first red guitar?
KING: Yes, I do.
GROSS: Now, I love the way you described developing your style. It sounds like you developed your style by trying and failing to imitate your influences, people like Lonnie Johnson (ph), Blind Lemon Jefferson, your cousin, Booker White (ph), Jangle Reinhart (ph), Charlie Christian (ph).
KING: Charlie Christian, yes. I'm still doing that.
GROSS: What, still trying and failing?
KING: Yeah, trying and failing. Yes. (LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Now, you also loved Hawaiian guitar. How did you hear Hawaiian guitar, and how did it -- why was it so exciting to you? It was another sound you tried to emulate.
KING: Well, I'd hear it on the radio. I would hear the Hawaiian sound or -- the country music players played steel and slide guitars, if you will, and I hear that -- to me a steel guitar is one of the sweetest sounds this side of heaven. I still like it. And that was one of the things that I tried to do so much was to imitate that, that sound. I could never get it. I still haven't been able to do it. And that was the beginning of the trill on my hand.
GROSS: Tell me more about the trill on your hand.
KING: Well, it's -- how can I tell you? It's sort of like -- it's not really pushing and pulling the strings like a lot of guitar players think I do. But it's like kind of just shaking your hand and getting a vibration on the string a little bit. So maybe a mini bit of pushing and pulling, but not from the strength of my hand. It's just from the shaking of it.
GROSS: Now, also you play a kind of single-line guitar, as opposed to, you know, chords of rhythm guitar. Tell me also about developing that style of single note.
KING: Well, every time I've worked in a band, I was always featured. They'd hardly let me play in the rhythm section. Usually for some reason, most of the players would always say, "B, take the solo. Take the lead." And I got in the habit of doing that. So I put more emphasis on the single string than I did the chords. I can play a few chords, but I'm not great chord player.
But for example, if you were SINGING or playing, I could play chords pretty well behind you with a guideline. The guideline means if I had a bass player or keyboard player, somebody that's playing the D (ph) chords, I could play then. I could play behind you very well. But other than that, I'm sad. Anybody hear me play by myself, I've just lost that person. You know, they won't listen to me anymore! That's the end. (LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So did you feel that your strength lay not in just being a guitar player or in just being a singer, but in doing both together?
KING: I think both together. I started to feel that I, you know, had to be a good entertainer to keep a job. And I'm kind of happy that I developed in my head that I'm never any better than my last concert or my last time I played. So it's like an audition each time. Quite often, it's quite a bit like -- some say when you're going on stage, you have stage fright. In so many words, you get nervous just before going on stage, and I still have that. But I think i's more like concern. You're concerned about the people. It's like meeting your in-laws for the first time.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
KING (SINGING): When I first got the blues, they brought me on board a ship / Men were standing over me, and (INAUDIBLE) with a whip man / Everybody want to know why I sing the blues / Well, I been around a long time, I've really paid my dues / I've laid in the ghetto flats, cold and numb / I heard the rats tell the bedbugs to get the roaches (INAUDIBLE) / Everybody want to know why I'm singing the blues / Yes, I've been around a long time, people, I've paid my dues / I stood in line down at the county hall, I heard a man say, "We're going to build some new apartments for y'all / Everybody want to know, yes, they want to know why I'm SINGING the blues / Yes, I've been around a long, long time, yes, I've really, really paid my dues.
Now I'm going to play a little (INAUDIBLE)
KING (SINGING): My kid's starting to grow up, going to grow up to be a fool because they ain't go no more room, no more room for him in school / And everybody want to know, everybody want to know why I'm singing the blues / I say I've been around a long time, yes, I've really paid some dues.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: B.B. King is my guest, and he has a new autobiography called "Blues All Around Me."
You're from a family of sharecroppers. What was the work that you had to do?
KING: Well, I was a regular hand when I was about 7. I chopped cotton. I picked cotton. I helped to plant it. I did everything that the grown-ups do, and that's mostly -- the work had to do with -- cotton was the king, if you will, of the produce in the Mississippi delta when I was growing up -- peanuts maybe later, and soybeans later. But cotton still is today one of the main produces that's raised in the Mississippi delta.
GROSS: Now, what was the financial arrangement between your family and the plantation owner?
KING: Well, a sharecropper was meant to be exactly what the say, "share cropper." But generally, the boss that owned the plantation did all of the paperwork, if you will. He was the CPA. He did all of that, and he sold the produce that you raised.
For example, "Jim, you earned, after paying me back the advances I gave you -- you've made 25 bales of cotton, and the cotton brought maybe $5,000 a bale, and you owe me, say, 25 times that, except maybe $2,000. So here's your $1,800." (LAUGHS)
GROSS: You know what I'm wondering? When you were growing up on a plantation, family of sharecroppers, did you vow to yourself early on "I'm getting out of here"?
KING: Well, not really. Believe it or not, people who lived on the plantation felt like that this was really home, most of them. And we're being taken care of because the boss of the plantation usually was like your lawyer, your judge, your father, your mom. He was your practically everything.
And people that lived on the plantation sort of felt, believe it or not, secure to be there. If they needed a few bucks, usually they could get this from the boss man, and it's taken out at the end of the year. At that time, we didn't have telephones. We didn't have electricity or anything of that sort. Later on, I guess we had electricity, maybe a year or so before I left, when I was 18 years old. And this was all taken care of through a system that you would pay at the end of the year, which came out of your earnings.
So a lot of the people, including myself at the early years, just thought that this was it, you know? This -- you raised your families, and you get old, die, your families take over, kids and what have you. And it's an ongoing process, if you will. But I somehow later started to feel that there was more for me, and a few others. I think it's the same way with young people today. They feel that they're not really happy with the status quo...
KING: ... if I make sense.
BOGEAV: B.B. King; we'll hear more of Terry's conversation with him after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
BOGEAV: If you're just joining us, we're featuring Terry's 1996 interview with B.B. King.
GROSS: You -- you know, you grew up on a plantation, then left it to go to Memphis, which is where you started really playing music professionally. It's a great story how you left the plantation. You were driving a tractor. (LAUGHTER) This was a problematic tractor that had -- it had problems with after-ignition. So one day you turned off the tractor, walked out of the tractor, and then the tractor started jumping on its own, rammed into the barn. The exhaust pipe got crushed or, you know, broke off...
KING: It broke off.
GROSS: ... and you were afraid of how much money you would owe the plantation owner.
KING: No, I was afraid that I would be killed. (LAUGHS)
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh! Even worse!
KING: No, well, he never killed anybody, but he was -- (LAUGHS) I don't mean it that way, but -- scared to death. You know, like if you -- your mom cooked a cake and you decided that, you know, you were going to get a piece of it, and you drop it, you know, and it spills on the floor, brand-new cake that's made for the family. You would feel that Mom is going to surely kill you, so you better get out of there! (LAUGHS)
Well, that's the way I felt that the -- the time that that tractor, when it backfired, you know, and ran out (INAUDIBLE) Scared me half to death, so I -- I panicked and left, left, hitchhiked to Memphis. Going from Indianola to Memphis then was like, oh, to me like leaving Chicago, going to Philly, it was that far. That's the way it seemed at the time. So I was scared to death. I left and stayed for a while and communicated back with my family. And my cousin, Booker White, said, "Go on back there and take your" -- I mean, "take your medicine."
So I finally went back, and Mr. Barrett (ph) was a very nice guy, a man that I admired so much. I wished I could be a lot more like him.
GROSS: You know, the good thing is, too, is that this -- that accident forced you to leave the plantation. Maybe you wouldn't have left if it wasn't for that.
KING: No, no, no. I had planned to leave.
GROSS: You did?
KING: Yes. I had planned to leave. I'd worked with a group called the Saint John Gospel Singers and we -- I thought we were very good. I had asked the guys a couple years before to leave -- you know, "Let's go. Let's -- I believe we're ready." And each time, the crops would be bad or something like that, and somebody would have an excuse, say, "Well, we didn't do so well this year. Let's try it again next year." And I was about fed up with hearing that. I was about ready to go anyway.
GROSS: What was Memphis like when you got there? What impressed you the most?
KING: It was like, oh, let's say you lived in Cairo, Illinois, and you moved to Chicago. Wow! (LAUGHTER) That's what Memphis was like. Wow, wow! Great, big city. I'd never been in a city that large before.
GROSS: And did you feel like, "Hey, this city is mine," or did you feel like "I don't belong here"?
KING: No, I felt that it was a place of learning because I was lucky. My cousin, Booker White, lived there, and I had a chance to meet a lot of people when I came to Memphis. And I would go down on Beale (ph) Street and hear all these fine musicians playing, especially on the weekends. Memphis was sort of like, again, Chicago or any of the major metropolitan areas. People were coming through, going east or west. In other words, it was sort of like a meeting place, if you will, a port for people traveling from different places. So I had a chance to meet a lot of great giants in the business, jazz and other wise. So I felt it was something -- or a place, rather, that I could learn.
GROSS: Bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson (ph) had a radio show when you got to Memphis, "King Biscuit Time." And you went up to him and asked to sing on the program. Seems to me like a -- you must have had the courage to just come in like that.
KING: Well, before I left Indianola, my home town -- Indianola, Mississippi -- I used to hear Sonny Boy over in Helena, Arkansas. He would come on the air each day at 12:15, and for about 15 minutes for the King Biscuit company. And I felt that I knew him. It's sort of like watching TV or listening to you. A person listens to you and feels that they can trust you and feel that they really know you. You become like a name in the family.
So that's the way I felt when I met him. I didn't know him, but seemed to me I had known him all this time. So when I got to Memphis, he was in West Memphis, which is across the Mississippi River in Arkansas. I went over, and I felt -- I guess I would have been hurt very badly had he not talked with me.
GROSS: He let you sing on his show.
KING: Yes, he did. I guess he said, "A guy got this much nerve" -- and I'm very homely-looking.
GROSS: What'd you sing?
KING: I sang one of Ivory Joe Hunter's (ph) songs. Ivory Joe Hunter, if you're not familiar with him, was a great songwriter and great musician. He made a lot of tunes, one or two that you probably have heard. Anyway, I sang one of his tunes called "Blues at Sunrise."
GROSS: And you got a response?
KING: Very much so. Sonny Boy seemed to like it. And Sonny Boy was a very big guy, you know, and his eyes was not very clear, looked a little red like. And he was a very big fellow, and at that time I weighed about 127, and he -- he stood about, oh, six feet or more, and looking down on me, you know, like, "Hey, you better sing right." And I said, "Yes, sir." (LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Well, you ended up getting your own radio show, as well as your own gigs in Memphis. When you were on the radio, one of the things you had to do was sing -- well, write and then sing a jingle for Pepticon (ph), which was what, a kind of cure-all remedy?
KING: Yes. Pepticon was a tonic that was supposed to be good for whatever ails you. And we sold a lot of it, and I think a lot of it had to do -- I didn't learn until much later that it was 12 percent alcohol, so a lot of the older people bought it, and especially church people. (LAUGHS) They bought a lot of it!
GROSS: The only way to drink and be legit. (LAUGHTER)
KING: Well, I won't say that, but I do know that they bought it, and older people mostly bought it. And someone sent me a bottle about six or seven years ago. I have it at home now. And it was, I think, 12 percent alcohol.
GROSS: Would you sing the jingle you wrote?
KING: Well -- do you really want me to do this? (LAUGHS)
KING: You really do, huh? OK.
(SINGING): Pepticon sure is good, Pepticon sure is good / Pepticon sure is good, you can get it anywhere in your neighborhood.
GROSS: And did that sell a lot of Pepticon?
KING: Well, sold a lot of it. I used to ride the trucks on the weekend with the salesman, and people would stand in line sort of like going to a concert or a movie. We sold a lot of it.
BOGEAV: B.B. King. Terry Gross spoke with him in 1996.
We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of our show.
I'm Barbara Bogeav, and this is FRESH AIR.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
KING (SINGING): Yes, people all talking all over town / They say you don't love me, you're going to put me down / You better watch yourself, baby, you better watch yourself / You better watch yourself, woman, 'cause I got my eyes on you.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
It's the first day of a week of blues on the show. A little later, we'll hear an interview with biographer Peter Guralnick about the blues guitarist Robert Johnson.
Now let's get back to Terry's interview with B.B. King.
She spoke with him in 1996 after the publication of his autobiography, "Blues All Around Me." In the book, he describes his journey from Mississippi sharecropper to the world's best-known blues musician.
GROSS: Now, I want to get to another record recorded in 1952. You were 26. This is a recording of "Three O'Clock Blues." It had been a hit a few years before...
GROSS: ... for Li'l Fulsom (ph).
GROSS: This was your first number one record on the R&B charts.
KING: Very first.
GROSS: You're coming into your own here, don't you think, as a stylist?
KING: I'm a very happy guy to know that somebody tells me that I have a hit record. I'm very happy to hear that. I think that's music to each performer's ear to hear that they have a top-selling record or CD.
GROSS: Well, let's hear it.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "THREE O'CLOCK BLUES," B.B. KING)
GROSS: That's B.B. King, recorded in 1952.
How did that record, your first record went to number one on the R&B charts, change your life?
KING: Well, it changed my life in many ways. For one thing, financially, because I had been making about $60 a week at this radio station, and I would go out and pick cotton, I would drive trucks and tractors, I did everything to try to make ends meet, if you will, because my music wasn't taking care of me.
And when I had "Three O'Clock Blues," I started then to get guarantees maybe, like, $400, $500 a day when I played out, and that made a big difference -- difference, rather, as far as financially speaking, because then I could hire more people to work with me, made life easier. I could get a driver to keep from having to drive all the different places by myself.
And my wife and I was able to live better, able to pay the band better. I was able to do many things that I hadn't been able to do prior to that. And, of course, my popularity was much more popular, if you will, and I just started to feel then that I was a real entertainer.
GROSS: Now, in the 1950s, you toured on a black music circuit. And you weren't crossing over, even into the early '60s, to white audiences the way other African-American performers who were playing more rock and roll had started to do -- Chuck Berry, Little Richard.
Did you want to cross over? Were you frustrated that you weren't crossing over?
KING: Well, in the beginning, I was really confused about the way the politics ran in music. I always thought if you made a good record, it was a good record. If it was a hit record, it was a hit record. And people -- not black, not white, red, or yellow -- but people would like it, some people would like it.
But I learned quickly after I got into the music business that there are so many categories, and you can get lost. You're like a little fish in a big pond. And more so if you're a blues singer, blues musician.
So I was not really wanting to be a crossover, actually, but I wanted all people to hear it and like it. I was hoping, rather, they would like it. And people like Ray Charles, people like Chuck Berry, all these guys to me were very talented, and they was very energetic -- Lloyd Price and so on -- all of them was very energetic when it come to playing music.
They didn't play the slow, droopy-drawers music like I did, so I...
KING: ... I found that maybe that was my reason, because they had things that I didn't have, or the way -- musically or entertaining.
GROSS: Well, they were playing to teenage audiences. And as you've always pointed out, your audience...
KING: Was always my age and older.
GROSS: Yes, yes. So could you imagine yourself crossing over to teenagers, playing to teenagers?
KING: No. No, I could not. I -- and again, I'm trying to say that to hear the people that I mentioned playing, I was never envious of them, because me, I'm the country boy, that, you know, that left the country but then never got the country out of me. So I didn't have that -- oh, stage presence that they have.
So I was never envious of them being able to get over, but I was hoped that people sometime would pay more attention to what I was doing.
GROSS: In the mid-'60s, I guess it was, a lot of the rock guitarists started emulating you. I mean, you became a god to some of them, like Bloomfield, Eric Clapton. And that helped introduce your music to college audiences.
And then you started playing the college circuit in addition to the places you'd already been playing. What was it like for you to start playing the college circuit? Did you feel like it was -- did it feel very different to you? Did you feel like you needed to change anything about your performance style? Was there anything you were doing that didn't seem to translate?
KING: Yes, I was frightened at first. Here I am, a high school dropout, and I'm going to be playing to college audiences. Yes, I felt that I should wear a high hat and be Fred Astaire or Nat Cole.
GROSS: (laughs) Be real suave.
KING: (laughs) Yes. But I remember, after "Three O'Clock Blues," I had a manager, and he told me, when I was going -- it used to be a saying that for a black performer, it was three theaters -- four, rather, four theaters you had to play and be accepted before you would be accepted as a true entertainer.
One of those theaters was the Howard Theater in Washington, the Royal Theater in Baltimore, and the master itself was the Apollo Theater in New York, in Harlem. So my manager told me then -- I lived in Memphis -- and he said, "Don't go to New York and these other places." Oh, and by the way, the fourth theater was the Regal Theater here in Chicago.
However, my manager said, "Do not go to New York trying to be Nat Cole or anybody else that's trying to be slick. Because there are people that's sweeping the floors that are much better than you'll ever be."
KING: (laughs) "So the best thing for you to do is go there and be B.B. King."
GROSS: What good advice!
KING: "Sing `Three O'Clock Blues,' sing the songs that you sing the way you sing them." And he said, "Now, all these other people can do all of those other things, but they can't be you as you can be you."
And that I've tried to keep from then until now.
GROSS: It's been said that you've always felt bad that you dropped out of school, never went to college. Were you self-conscious about that when you were actually playing colleges?
KING: Yes, very much so. I thought that my shortcomings as far as the education was concerned would make me not be, shall we say, good enough to play for a lot of those people.
GROSS: But it was probably just the opposite, that your audience really wanted to be you.
KING: Well, I don't know about that, but they did show me that they appreciated me being there. They still do that. They showed me that they was really with me and supported me in what I was doing.
So they gave me confidence.
GROSS: I have met over the years a lot of people who've worked with you or toured with you. And it's just not possible, I think, to get anybody to say a bad word about you. I mean, your reputation is of somebody who treats everybody around him really well, with a lot of respect, always fair, financially and in all other ways as well.
And I'm just wondering if that's something that you consciously set out to do, if there -- if -- I'm not just trying to be nice here. I mean, I think it's just a kind of a fact that you're known for this. And I wonder if you think of yourself just naturally Mr. Nice Guy, or if it's something that you've felt really obliged to do and have been very conscious about doing.
KING: There are some things that I've read that I truly believe in. I believe that one should treat others as they want to be treated. And that's one of the things I try to live by, if you will, is trying to be fair to people as I want them to be to me.
GROSS: One of your recordings that I particularly love happens to be a recording with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. (laughs.
GROSS: Your recording of "Don't Get Around Much Any More."
GROSS: I mean, gee, you don't even play guitar on this. It's so strange. It's such a unusual recording. My fantasy is that someday you'll record an album of jazz standards.
KING: You must be reading my mind.
GROSS: Really? Well, go ahead and do it.
KING: Yes, I'm hoping to do that someday, with standard tunes like "Don't Get Around Much Any More" and tunes of that kind. You know what else? I would also want to do an instrumental album doing tunes like the Beatles did, and other known tunes like that of today. I would like to do both.
GROSS: How did it feel to sing with the Ellington Orchestra and...
GROSS: Yes, and not have a guitar? I mean, I don't think you're playing a guitar.
KING: Well, I was afraid to try to sing, and trying to play guitar would have been just too much. But today I'm more familiar with a lot of the standard tunes, and I would like to try and play the melodies instead of singing them.
GROSS: B.B. King, it's really been such a delight to talk with you. Thank you very, very much for your time.
KING: Thank you, you're very kind...
GROSS: Thank you for being here.
KING: ... to talk with. I enjoy your voice.
(EXCERPT, "DON'T GET AROUND MUCH ANY MORE," B.B. KING AND THE DUKE ELLINGTON ORCHESTRA)
BOGAEV: That's B.B. King and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, recorded in 1961.
B.B. King spoke with Terry Gross in 1996. His autobiography, "Blues All Around Me," is available in paperback.
Next stop, writer Peter Guralnick on the tragic and brief life of blues musician Robert Johnson.
This is FRESH AIR.
TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Barbara Bogeav, Philadelphia, PA; Terry Gross
Guest: B.B. King
High: B.B. King, winner of seven Grammies, an MTV award, and a Presidential Medal of the Arts, as well as the nickname "King of the Blues," recounts his life from his early days in Mississippi, to breaking into the music business in Memphis, to his recent career. (Rebroadcast from 10/22/96)
Spec: B.B. King; Music Industry; Entertainment; "Blues All Around Me"
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: B.B. King on a Lifetime of the Blues
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.