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A Sober Read Before the Fall Semester.

Critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Halfway Heaven" by Melanie Thernstrom (Doubleday) about the 1995 murder of a Harvard student by her roommate.


Other segments from the episode on September 5, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 5, 1997: Interview with B. B. King; Review of Melanie Thernstrom's book "Halfway Heaven."


Date: SEPTEMBER 05, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090501np.217
Head: B.B. King
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


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.

B.B. King tells his story in his new autobiography "Blues All Around Me." We're listening to his 1972 recording "Five Long Years."


B.B. KING, MUSICIAN, SINGING: If you ever been mistreated
Then you know just what I'm talkin' about
If you 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 to put me out
You know I got a job in a steel mill
Sure can steal like a slave

Five long years, every Friday
I would stay 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 to put me out

GROSS: B.B. King, what was your very first guitar like?

B.B. KING, BLUES SINGER AND GUITARIST: My very first guitar was a little red guitar about two and a half feet long. It had a hole in the center and 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 ever happened to me.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

KING: A guitar made a 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: That you hear the sound of that very first red guitar?

KING: Yes, I do.

GROSS: Now, I loved the way you describe developing your style. It sounds like you developed your style by trying and failing to imitate your influences, people like Lonnie Johnson (ph), (Unintelligible) Jefferson (ph), your cousin Buckle White (ph); Jangle Reinhart (ph); Charlie Christian (ph)...

KING: Charlie Christian, yes. I'm still doing that.

GROSS: Still trying and failing to...

KING: Trying and failing, yes.


GROSS: Now, you also left Hawaiian guitar. How did you hear Hawaiian guitar? 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 play 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 gettin' a vibration on the string a little bit. So maybe a minnie (ph) 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 or rhythm guitar. Tell me also about developing that style, of single note?

KING: Well, every time I've worked in the band, I was always featured. And 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 no great chord player.


But for example, if you were singing or playing, I could play chords pretty well behind you, with a guideline. The guidelines means if I had a bass player or keyboard player -- somebody that's playing the D 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.

GROSS: So did you feel that your strength lied -- 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...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

KING: ... 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, and quite often it's quite a bit like -- some say when you're going on the 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 it's more like concern. You're concerned about the peoples -- like meeting your in-laws for the first time.


KING SINGING: When I first got the blues
They brought me over on a ship
Men was standing over me
And a lot more with a whip
And everybody want to know
Why I sing the blues

Well, I been around a long time
Mmmm -- I've really made my loot
I've laid in the ghetto flats
Cold and numb
I heard the rats tell the bed bugs
To get the roach's thumb

Everybody want to know
Why I'm singing the blues
Yes, I 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 gonna build some new apartments for y'all
And everybody want to know
Yeah, they wanna know why I'm singin' the blues

Yes, I've been around a long, long time
Yes, I've really, really paid my dues
Now, I'm gonna play Lucille


My kid's gonna grow up, gonna grow up to be a fool
'Cause they ain't got 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 been around a long time
Yes, I really paid some dues

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 seven. I chopped cotton. I picked cotton. I helped to plant it. I did everything that the grownups do and that's mostly -- the work was -- 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 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 they 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, a family of maybe five or six would have maybe 100 acres to work. And maybe they would make 20, 25 bales of cotton, and it was all dealt with through the plantation owner.

And at the end of the year, say late December, before Christmas -- maybe two weeks or so -- that's when we'd do what they called the "settlement." And this is all done through the trust of the plantation owner. In other words, the sharecropper had nothin' to do with it, but -- accept what was told to him that had to do with his earnings.

For example: "Jim, you earned, after paying me back the advances I gave you, you made 25 bales of cotton and the cotton brought maybe $5,000 a bale. And you owed me, say, 25 times that, except maybe $2,000. So here's your $1,800.


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 are 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 who lived on the plantation sort of felt, believe it or not, secure to be there. 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 the early years, just thought that this was it, you know. This -- you raise 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 start 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...

GROSS: Right.

KING: If I make sense.

GROSS: Right. Right. My guest is B.B. King. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Let's get back to our interview with B.B. King.

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 -- this is 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 the tractor started jumping on its own, rammed into the barn. The exhaust pipe got crushed or, you know, broke off.

KING: Broke off.

GROSS: And you were afraid of how much money you'd owe the plantation owner.

KING: No, I was afraid that I would be killed.


GROSS: Oh, oh, oh -- even worse.


KING: No. Well, he'd never killed anybody, but he -- 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 was gonna surely kill you, so you better get out of there.

Well, that's the way I felt at the time that that tractor -- when it backfired, you know, and ran out into there. Scared me half to death. So I panicked and left -- left -- hitchhiked to Memphis. Going from Indianola to Memphis then was like, oh, to me, like leaving Chicago going to Phillie, if it's 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 Buckle White (ph) said: "go on back there and take your lesson -- I mean, take your medicine." So I finally went back and Mr. Baird 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 had worked with a group called the "St. John Gospel Singers" and we -- I thought we was very good. And believe it or not, I thought we was getting close to being like "The Soulsters" (ph), you know...

GROSS: The Sam Cooke group.

KING: Sam Cooke -- you got it -- the "Golden Gate Quartet;" that was the "Pilgrim Travelers" and many other quartets that we admired and wanted to be like them, and I thought we was, you know, kind of a good opening act for some of them. And I'd wanted to leave two or three years before that.

However, 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.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

KING: Wow!


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 (ph) 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 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 was coming through, going east or west. Or 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 otherwise.

So I felt it was something, or a place, rather, that I could learn.

GROSS: Bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson 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. I -- it seems to me like 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. Person listen to you feel 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 if I got this much nerve, and I'm very homely looking.

GROSS: What'd you sing?

KING: I sang one of Ira Joe Hunter's (ph) song -- Ira Joe Hunter if you're not familiar with him was a song -- 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 stood about, oh, six -- six feet or more.

And looking down on me, you know, like: "hey, you better sing right." And I said: "yes, sir."


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 -- 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. They bought a lot of it.


GROSS: The only way to drink and be legit.

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: B.B. King -- his autobiography, Blues All Around Me has just been published in paperback. Our interview was recorded last fall when the book was first published. We'll hear more of the interview in the second half of this archive edition.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with more of our interview with B.B. King, the great blues guitarist and singer. His autobiography, Blues All Around Me describes his journey from Mississippi sharecropper to the world's best known blues musician.

Our interview was recorded last fall when his autobiography was first published. It's just come out in paperback.

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...

KING: Yes.

GROSS: ... a few years before for Lowell Folsom (ph).

KING: Right.

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. I don't know that somebody told me that I have a hit record. I was 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: Let's hear it.


KING SINGING: I heard it's three o'clock in the morning
Can't even close my eyes
Lord, three o'clock in the morning, baby
Can't even close my eyes
Well, I can't find my baby
Lord, and I can't be satisfied

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. 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, 'cause my music wasn't taking care of me.

And when I made "Three O'Clock Blues," I started then to get guarantees, maybe, like $400 or $500 a day when I played out. And that made a big difference, rather, as far as financially speaking, 'cause 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, much more popular, if you will. And I -- I just started to feel then that I was a real entertainer.

GROSS: 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 -- 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 wantin' 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 (ph) 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 found that maybe that was my reason, because they had things that I didn't have, 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: Yeah, yeah. 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 they 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 some time 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 -- Mike Bloomfield (ph), 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 gonna be playing to college audiences. Yes, I felt that I should wear a hard hat and be Fred Astaire or Nat Cole.


GROSS: Be real suave.

KING: Yeah. But I remember after Three O'Clock Blues, I had a manager and he told me when I was going -- there 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, 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's that sweeping the floors that are much better than you'll ever be."


"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." 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 shortcoming as far as 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: Did you ever get any heat for the blues lyrics because -- I mean, it was the period of the women's movement when you were playing colleges. And a lot of blues songs, let's face it, are all about, you know, "I'm the man, and I lay down the law, and woman you'll do as I say and don't leave the house unless I tell you it's OK..."


KING: Keep her bare -- keep her bare feet and pregnant. Yes, I thought about a lot of those things, yes. But then I started to think that like today, this is the '90s and things, and times changes. So a lot of the songs that I sing was because of the songs I had been influenced by; the people I'd been influenced by. I was like living in a segregated South or segregated America.

Things had started to change, and they are still changing. And you have to change with them.

GROSS: So have you changed your lyrics?

KING: Not necessarily changed...

GROSS: I mean, changed the songs that you sing.

KING: ... the lyrics altogether, but no, the idea -- that when I sing songs like "How Blue Can You Get?," it's not just the man singing to the lady, but the lady -- this goes both ways. And I've had to try to sell that story, which is the truth.

GROSS: I have...

KING: A lot of...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

KING: ... I'm sorry. A lot of the ladies are just as concerned about some of these things as men are.

GROSS: My guest is B.B. King. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Back to our interview with B.B. King.

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 all other ways as well.

And I'm just wondering if that's something that you consciously set out to do. If there -- I'm not just trying to be nice here. I mean, I think it's just -- 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: Now, I got a question about your autobiography.

KING: Uh-oh.

GROSS: The autobiography, which is co-written with David Ritz (ph)...

KING: Right.

GROSS: It goes into some of your kind of sexual life, and...

KING: I love women. Still do.

GROSS: That's fine.

KING: At 71, I still love 'em.

GROSS: Here's my question, though ...


... did you have any intention of getting that, well, explicit about your life as it ended up getting? Did he have to really push you to do that? Or were you comfortable with that?

KING: No, he didn't have to push me. When we agreed to do the book, I had said to David and some of my close associates that I would be as candid as possible. So someday after I'm dead, people are going to say: "yes, B.B. King has 15 kids by 15 different women," so I might as well to get the heat now. It's all right. At least it's now in the open.

But I must say and I'll say to you: if I had a chance to explain, I think a lot of people would understand it much better than I can say to you at this moment. But this was not love children. This was not something that just happened overnight. By the way, I've lived now 71 years, so this took a time to happen. And if I had my life to live over again, I would at this time knowing what I know now, would have done a lot of things differently.

But the ways of prevention at that time was not as easy as it is today. A lot of the people during my time coming up have big families, and the only way to prevent having a lot of children a lot of times had to do with doing things that a lot of men, especially this man, don't enjoy doing to prevent it.

So, there I am.


KING: I hope I've made a little sense.

GROSS: So you're comfortable with...

KING: I...

GROSS: ... the sexual material in the book.

KING: ... I love my children. I don't say this to brag that I have 15 kids by 15 different women, but since it has happened, I'm crazy about them. They all are doing well. Only two or three's been in trouble, and we've been in touch constantly since their early life, 'til present time. I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I'm proud of all of them. Some of them went to school like I wanted them to do.

I wasn't a very good father, because I was away most of the time, but I was in touch, and most of them, the moms are still living, and we are in touch. Anytime that it's something needed, they've always been able to get in touch with me -- their moms, that is. And they have lived their lives and I lived mine.

It wasn't that -- it usually something happened, but it was never something so bad until it was a, what we call a knock-down drag-out. We've always stayed in touch, and all the moms are living except three.

GROSS: I want to get back to your reputation for being just such a gentleman on the road and treating everybody who works with you so fairly and with such respect. Did you feel you got treated that way yourself when you were starting out? Or were you often taken advantage of?

KING: Business-wise, I may have been taken advantage of, but it's kind of, again, rather like I read that he that knoweth, will be whipped with many stripes; and he that doesn't know it will be whipped with a few.

And I mean it -- I meant saying what I did by this. If you don't know the business and somebody else do, they're the one that profits from it. Not that they mean to really do you in, it's just that if I know that my work means that out of 10, I get five or six, I get five or six dollars. The guy that doesn't know that maybe his work was equal to that, and doesn't know how to value this, then the guy that does usually takes advantage, if you will, of that situation.

So it -- I don't always hold it against a person that does know. I don't hold it against him, of course. Many years later, you find that, gosh, why didn't I ask? And later years when you did ask, somebody told you.

GROSS: One of your recordings that I particularly love happens to be a recording with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.


Your recording of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

KING: Right.

GROSS: I mean, gees, you don't even play guitar in this. It's so strange. It's such a unusual recording. My fantasy is that some day 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 some day with standard tunes like Don't Get Around Much Anymore 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?

KING: Frightening.

GROSS: Yeah, and not have a guitar. I mean, I don't think you're playing one...

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.

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 to talk with. I enjoy your voice.

GROSS: B.B. King, recorded last October. His autobiography, Blues All Around Me, has just come out in paperback. As usual, he's on tour. In the next couple of weeks, he'll perform in Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Charleston, Nashville, Lexington, Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: B.B. King
High: He's known as the King of the Blues. B.B. King was born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi before moving to Memphis where he began his career. Since then, among numerous other awards, he's received seven Grammys, an MTV award, and a Presidential medal of the Arts. He is also a member of the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. In his autobiography entitled "Blues All Around Me," he recounts his life from his early days in Mississippi, to breaking into the music business in Memphis, to his career today. He has over 74 albums to his credit.
Spec: Music Industry; History; Blues; B.B. King; Family
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 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
Date: SEPTEMBER 05, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090502NP.217
Head: Halfway Heaven
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: A few days before graduation in May, 1995 Harvard was shocked by a horrific murder/suicide that took place in one of its on-campus dorms. Melanie Theinstrom wrote about the tragedy for the New Yorker.

Theinstrom is well-connected to Harvard. Her father is a history professor at the school. She herself graduated from the University in 1987 and she has taught writing courses there.

Now, Theinstrom has published an expanded account of the story in a book called "Halfway Heaven."

Book critic Maureen Corrigan says it makes for sobering reading as the fall semester begins.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Halfway Heaven is a short, incisive work of investigative journalism that manages to cram about 10 books-worth of anguish, lost opportunities, and bureaucratic buck-passing between its covers.

Through diaries and letters, writer Melanie Theinstrom delves into the tortured psyche of Sinedue Tedessi (ph), a 20-year-old Harvard junior from Ethiopia who on a spring day in 1995 repeatedly stabbed her Vietnamese roommate Trang Ho (ph) to death, and then hung herself in the dorm bathroom they shared.

The precipitating cause was Trang's decision to move in with other girls in the fall, leaving the unpopular Sinedue bereft. Theinstrom explores how cultural and class differences compounded Sinedue's isolation and possibly pushed her over the edge.

Through interviews with students and some forthright administrators, Theinstrom also scrutinizes the state of student mental health services at Harvard where, she implies, managed care cost-cutting seems to have triumphed over common sense.

But the story that haunts me from this intensely packed book is one of the last ones Theinstrom tells. She describes how Trang's grief-stricken mother sometimes wanders Harvard's campus searching for her murdered daughter. According to Theinstrom, the Ho's won't push for any kind of reparation or accountability from Harvard because of their continued deference to that institution.

A friend of the Ho family explains to Theinstrom that having Trang go to Harvard was a fulfillment of her immigrant family's dreams. "This beautiful place," the family friend calls Harvard, "which was halfway heaven."

Theinstrom begins by challenging news accounts of the tragedy that describe the two roommates as twins -- both quiet, tiny, foreign-born, pre-med scholarship students. In personality, however, Theinstrom notes that Trang and Sinedue were polar opposites.

Trang was the kind of can-do immigrant whose image should be enshrined on Ellis Island. With her father and sister, she escaped Vietnam by boat when she was nine. And when the family relocated to Boston, she quickly learned English, excelled in public school, and did volunteer work in the Vietnamese community. At Harvard, she held down two part-time jobs to help support her family.

Sinedue, in contrast, was described by another student as a "geek." Cut off from her family in Ethiopia, she simply couldn't connect with anyone -- not her fellow African nor her American classmates. Theinstrom, who taught at Harvard in 1992, admits turning Sinedue away from her autobiographical writing course, because the sample essays Sinedue submitted were boring.

Even as Theinstrom initially ridicules what she calls the "macabre kind of political correctness" that reigned at Harvard after the tragedy and made both girls into victims, she, too, comes to see Sinedue as a sympathetic casualty of mental illness and culture shock.

It's hard not to. Sinedue was so profoundly lonely, she once set out letters asking for advice on how to make friends to strangers whose names she plucked from a telephone book. "All you have to do is give me a hand," she begs in her letter. "No expenses are involved."

In contrast, Theinstrom has little pity to spare for Harvard. Admittedly, Theinstrom has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight here. But even if a sprawling university like Harvard can't save all its students from their own demons, it can ensure that self-examination, rather than self-preservation, will be the institutional priority in the wake of a tragedy like this. If Theinstrom is reporting her story accurately, Harvard has a lot to answer for.

Halfway Heaven will probably be shelved in the "true crimes" section of most bookstores, because it's an engrossing example of that grim genre. But anybody who has anything to do with college students should read it. Like Theinstrom, I know how easy it is to side-step students who look like they're going to be trouble or tedious or just too much work.

What Sinedue's disintegration horribly reminds us is that sometimes, the consequences of cumulative casual indifference can be fatal.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Halfway Heaven by Melanie Theinstrom.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Halfway Heaven" by Melanie Theinstrom about the 1995 murder of a Harvard student by her roommate.
Spec: Books; Deaths; Health and Medicine; Education; Psychology; Murder; Harvard University; Halfway Heaven
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 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: Halfway Heaven
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.

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