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The Wild World Of Maurice Sendak

Author Maurice Sendak celebrates his 80th year on Sept. 15 with a benefit in Manhattan. In addition to penning the children's classics, Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen, Sendak has written, designed and produced several operas and ballets.


Other segments from the episode on September 12, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 12, 2008: interview with Maurice Sendak; Interview with B.B.King; Review of the film "Burn after reading."


DATE September 12, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM

Interview: Two interviews with artist Maurice Sendak to celebrate
his 80th birthday

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for Broadcasting & Cable
magazine and, in for Terry Gross.

Maurice Sendak, artist, author, children's book illustrator, costume and set
designer, turned 80 this summer. The 92nd Street Y in New York is honoring
his birthday with a celebration on Monday, featuring performances, readings
and commemorations. Sendak also is being saluted through next May with a
rotating exhibition featuring hundreds of his works at the Rosenbach Museum &
Library in Philadelphia.

Today we'll listen back to two of Terry's conversations with Maurice Sendak,
starting with this one, when she spoke with him in 1993 after the publication
of his book "We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy." It was his first
children's book that wasn't about middle-class kids. "We Are All in the
Dumps" deals with homelessness, sickness and hunger. It's based on two
English nursery rhymes. Terry asked him to recite them.

Mr. MAURICE SENDAK: (Reading) We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are trumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul's
The babies are bit
The moons in a fit
And the houses are built without walls

(Speaking) That's the first one. Second one:

(Reading) Jack and Guy went out in the rye
And they found a little boy with one black eye.
`Come,' says Jack, `let's knock him on the head.'
`No,' says Guy, `let's buy him some bread.
You buy one loaf and I'll buy two,
And we'll bring him up as other folk do.'


The first rhyme that you recited?

Mr. SENDAK: Mm-hmm?

GROSS: I wouldn't have known what to make of that. I'd have to say, it
wouldn't have made any sense to me. You want to recite it one more time?

Mr. SENDAK: Sure. Well, see, there are clues in it for an illustrator. "We
are all in the dumps."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SENDAK: "For diamonds are trumps. The kittens are gone to St. Paul's.
The babies are bit, the moon's in a fit, and the houses are built without
walls." Now, I think it's extraordinarily beautiful poetry, but it's like
haiku--what does it mean? Well, I'm faced with a bridge game--"diamonds are
trumps"--that means somewhere in this book somebody's playing bridge. Not
being a card player, that doesn't turn me on, so I had to learn how to play
bridge. "The moon's in a fit"? You have to figure out why the moon is in a
fit. What does it mean, the kittens are gone to St. Paul's? I mean, what
does St. Paul's mean to American children primarily? And the astonishing,
extraordinary line, the houses are built without walls. I mean, that's what
moved me all these years to make this work for me.

GROSS: So what did that come to mean to you, the houses are built without

Mr. SENDAK: Well, it meant, finally, kids who have no place to live. This
really started back in Los Angeles, at least one detail, and a significant one
began in Los Angeles years ago. I was working on an opera, the LA Opera, and
we came home late from a rehearsal, and I was driven back to my hotel, and we
passed down some very, very posh streets in Beverly Hills. Maybe it was Rodeo
Drive, but I couldn't swear to it. And there, past midnight, on the street,
in this posh section of town, was just a dilapidated, ruined cardboard box
with two, dirty, naked kids' feet sticking out. The juxtaposition was
astonishing. It's as though when everybody had stopped shopping and gone
home, then these kids came out--or people came out. And every city is ringed
around with shantytowns, homeless. We all know that. We have it in New York.
We have it in every major metropolis in this country, but it astonished me to
see that juxtaposition. I got interested.

And I got a book on Rio, Rio de Janeiro, and discovered that there is a ringed
around, well known shantytown, kids' town around the city. And kids are
abandoned there: little girls sold into prostitution, little boys run away
from being abused at home, and they make their own cities, and they're as
cruel to each other as any adults can be. And their lives are very, very
brief. And they live in tin cans and cardboard houses and rag huts. And I
suddenly began to see what dumps is. We are all in the dumps. Back in the
'60s, that of course meant, you know, if you're in therapy, dumps means you're
in depression. Which is probably why I couldn't make anything sound of it
back then. Now dumps literally means world. We are all in the dumps is
really well describes events around the world at this point.

BIANCULLI: Maurice Sendak speaking with Terry Gross in 1993. Let's jump to a
later part of his conversation with Terry. She asked him about his parents,
both of whom were immigrants to America.

GROSS: Now, they were from Poland?

Mr. SENDAK: They were from Poland, yeah.

GROSS: And they fled before World War I?

Mr. SENDAK: Yes, they did. Just before World War I. They didn't flee. My
father left on a lark.

GROSS: Oh. What was that?

Mr. SENDAK: He had no cause to come here. My grandfather was a rabbi. He
was the youngest son. And he was obviously a spoiled younger son of my
grandmother. And he actually fell in love with a young woman, and it became a
little bit scandalous, and she was put on a boat and shipped off to America.
And he sulked and pouted and got money out of his siblings and got on another
boat to follow her here. And his family was appalled at his behavior.
Because of that trivial behavior, he was the only survivor of his entire
family. I mean, all of my uncles and aunts and all the children were
destroyed in concentration camps. My father's grief his entire life was that
his survival was based on such a trivial impulse. It really did cause him a
lot of grief, especially when he became older.

GROSS: Did your parents talk to you much about the old country?

Mr. SENDAK: Oh, yeah. Thank goodness. And when my father was--the last
year of his life, paradoxically we had a wonderful time. I took his biography
down, which was wonderful. A lot of it was fantasy, and a lot of it was
reality, but I was...

GROSS: His biography?

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah, his life.

GROSS: You wrote a biography?

Mr. SENDAK: He wrote a biography, which is not published. He did write a
fairy tale which I translated with the help of somebody else, and illustrated,
and then that was published just before his death. But his biography is not
published, and I don't intend to have it published. It's private family
chronicle. We didn't get much of my mother's life. My mother was silent
about that period of her life.

GROSS: I think as a lot of people from Eastern Europe who came to America
were. Did they seem like aliens to you because, I don't know, they're
probably--did they speak more Yiddish than English in the house?

Mr. SENDAK: Yes, they spoke more Yiddish. I spoke Yiddish as a child. My
parents spoke English very, very late and very poorly. And we lived in a part
of Brooklyn which is teeming with immigrants.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SENDAK: Either people from Eastern Europe, Jews, or Sicilians. And I
couldn't tell the difference. I mean, we lived next to the Sicilians, and I
had a real--it sounds like coy conceit, but it's a fact--I had a real
confusion because right across the hall from us was my best friend, at one
place we lived, Carmine, and his sisters and brothers, and his huge mother and
huge father, just across the hall. And I had to run across the hall because
they had un-kosher food, which is much better, much better than kosher food
because it was pasta. It was great Italian cooking. And they laughed, and
they drank wine, and they grabbed me, and I sat on their laps, and I had a
hell of a good time. Then you come back to my house and you have this sober
cuisine, and not so rambunctious family life. And I really did have a
confusion that Italians were happy Jews, that they were a sect...

GROSS: Oh, that's really interesting.

Mr. SENDAK: ...and that I would have the choice--that I would have a choice
after my bar mitzvah to belong to either the sober sect or the happy sect.

GROSS: And they went to a different synagogue where they had pasta?

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah. I was a dumb kid, let me tell me. I mean, all the
parents were--looked alike--they all wore the same, dull, black dresses, and
you couldn't tell the difference. Not to me.

BIANCULLI: Maurice Sendak speaking with Terry Gross in 1993. We'll hear a
more recent interview with Sendak after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This Monday Maurice Sendak will be honored at the 92nd Street Y to
commemorate his recent 80th birthday. In 2003, Terry Gross spoke with Sendak
again about his collaboration with playwright Tony Kushner. They adapted a
children's opera that originally was performed by children in the Nazi
concentration camp Terezinstadt. Sendak designed the sets. The opera
"Brundibar" is a parable about evil. It was written in 1938 by a composer who
was killed in the gas chambers.

Here's the opening scene from a 1992 recording of "Brundibar" recorded in

(Soundbite of "Brundibar" performed in foreign language)

BIANCULLI: Terry asked Sendak why the children in the Nazi concentration camp
performed the opera "Brundibar."

Mr. SENDAK: This opera was written by Hans Krasa, a very young Czech
composer, and it was written for Jewish children in an orphan asylum in Prague
to amuse them. There was a contest, who could write the prettiest opera for
the children. And Krasa wrote this, and everybody loved it; and at that very
same point, the Nazis entered the country and the orphanage was emptied and
the children were put into Terezin, the camp, and he was, too, as was the
librettist. And it became a show camp. It became known as Hitler's favorite
camp. He set it up in such a way and made a film of how well the Jews were
being treated, and the gypsies and the homosexuals. And this was to--because
rumors were getting out that were frightful. And so he set this up to prove
to the Red Cross and diplomats who were traveling the world to come by, see a
show and see how happy everybody was.

And it's in the film. You see the children singing in the last portion of the
opera. So they all sat there. It was performed 55 times; a huge success,
this little opera, which is about 45 minutes in length. That's the story.
Hans Krasa was murdered, too, as was the librettist, as was, well, mostly
everybody in the camp. It was an elitist camp. You had Bauhaus workers
there, you had artists, people teaching the children there, intellects. It
was a special camp. But it ended the same way for all of them.

GROSS: So the performances were for visiting diplomats to show off the camp?

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Do you know if they fell for it?

Mr. SENDAK: Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely they fell for it. The streets were
cleaned, trees were planted, all the children were given clean clothes, all
the inmates were given clean clothes. Everything was swept up. And they went
and they had a pass, quite an attractive pass, which I'd love to have an
original of, but I've used as an image in the book to get in to see

GROSS: Tell us the story that's told in the opera...


GROSS: ...that you tell in the book.

Mr. SENDAK: This was directly written for children and the limitations of
children. They don't have singing voices. Some of them do, but that was by
accident. But mostly it's sort of like a singspiel, which is--like a Mozart
opera is a singspiel, where you talk over the music rather than actually sing.
And those who could sing sang. And the music is astonishing. He was in his
30s, so you hear Janacek and you hear Weill and you hear Gershwin and you hear
Ravel. And just like all of us young artists, steal like crazy until we make
ourselves up as artists, you hear all these wonderful sounds.

And the story is ultrasimple so the children could follow it and produce the
tale, which has to do with a little brother and sister whose mother is ill,
and the doctor says unless they get milk for her she won't last. So they go
out into the world, which is, in my case, Prague, into the city proper. And,
`Please, somebody, give us money to buy milk for Mommy,' and nobody will. And
in the streets of Prague, on a specific corner, is Brundibar, who is an organ
grinder--mean, mean. In Czech, Brundibar means bee, like a bee sting. And
he's taken over the whole place, and he sings, and people throw money in his
hat, and the kids say, `Well, anybody could do that.' So they stand on the
other corner and they sing a dreadful song, and everyone just ignores them.
And they wonder why they can't do this.

And they stay all night in the street by themselves, and a cat and a bird and
a dog come to their assistance and say, `Look, let's pull this together,
because the two of you can't do this by yourselves. Let's get all the kids in
town. Let's get all the kids in town.' And in the morning, there's this
beautiful music as children wake up and they're getting ready to go to school,
comb their hair and wash their shoes and such. And the animals convince them
to come and help these kids, so they all come to the town square, 300 of them,
and they say to Brundibar, `We want to sing, and we don't care about money.
We just want to sing.'

And Brundibar says, `No, no, get the hell out of here.' And the townspeople
say, `Oh, let the kids do it.' And they sing a lullaby, which is, like,
extraordinary to hear it. And people are captivated, and they fill their milk
can with coins. They've made it. They have enough money now. But Brundibar
sneaks in and grabs the can and rushes off and steals their money, and the
whole town chases Brundibar and they catch him and they beat him up, and the
kids get their money back and buy the milk, come home triumphant, and save
their mama. And that's the story.

GROSS: But there's an epilogue to the story.

Mr. SENDAK: There's a...

GROSS: There's a little poem at the end. Could you read that for us?

Mr. SENDAK: Sure. Sure.

GROSS: And just, you know, a reminder: This is written while Hitler is
coming to power.

Mr. SENDAK: Exactly. And the fact that it is impossible for me to doubt
that the children knew what their fate was. Imagine standing up on the stage
and singing about brotherhood and, `If we all hang together we're going to
succeed and the bully will not'--and knowing that as soon as this audience
left, kaput, their lives are finished. I can't even grasp that now. I've
been studying and working on this for over three years.

OK. So we're just turning the page on the big happy ending where everything
is wonderful and safe and mommy is alive, and then there's a little coda at
the end, which was written by Tony, basically. It's not in the opera. And it
says--this is Brundibar talking:

"They believe they've won the fight
They believe I'm gone; not quite.
Nothing ever works out neatly.
Bullies don't give up completely.
One departs, the next appears
And we shall meet again, my dears.
Though I go, I won't go far.
I'll be back, love, Brundibar."

GROSS: Yeah. That's kind of chilling.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah, kind of chilling.

GROSS: Chilling epilogue.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah.

GROSS: So Tony Kushner wrote that for the book.

Mr. SENDAK: He wrote that, yeah.

BIANCULLI: Maurice Sendak from a 2003 interview. Let's jump back and hear a
little more from his earlier conversation on FRESH AIR.

GROSS: One of the great controversies about your books is, you know, "In the
Night Kitchen," when the character Mickey lands in the batter, he's naked.

Mr. SENDAK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And there's like this little boy penis that he has, right?

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah.

GROSS: And there are libraries that wouldn't carry the book or would draw
little diapers over him, all kinds of silly things like that. I mean, this
was not a sexual image. It was just a naked boy image.

Mr. SENDAK: Correct. I mean, it would've been strange had he not had a

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SENDAK: But no one has ever discussed that problem.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SENDAK: The astonishing and infuriating business on that book was that
was--it's one of my favorite works, and it's a rather complex work. And to
have it all reduced, so to speak, to a child's penis is embarrassing. It's
silly. And the fact that anyone could carry on about such an issue does not
speak well for our culture.

GROSS: Well, here's what I'm wondering. Now that book was not about Mickey
as a sexual boy or anything, but I think a lot of kids do have sexual

Mr. SENDAK: Well...

GROSS: Maybe just a little bit older than Mickey, and I was wondering if you
ever thought about putting sexual feelings into a children's book, or if that
would seem like much too far out?

Mr. SENDAK: Well, I have to correct something you said, or at least I don't
agree with something you just said.


Mr. SENDAK: Which is that he, the little boy "In the Night Kitchen," does
not have sexual feelings. Of course he does. We have them immediately on
arrival. There's nothing, in a word, that you can do that is not sexual, so
far as I'm concerned. And the creative act is composed of its sexual
component. And I don't mean by saying sexual, that is vivid, livid sex. I
mean, the component of sexuality, sensuality, eroticism is part of everything.
And it's what blesses our life. And instead of seeing it in accusatory
way--and I don't mean you, I mean culture in general--or blameworthy way,
rather see it for the beautiful thing that it is.

GROSS: I remember, I interviewed you, oh, I don't know, eight years ago or
something. Something that you said really stuck with me. You were talking
about the monsters in "Where the Wild Things Are," and you were saying that
when you were young, the monsters were just adults. They were people with
like moles on their faces and hairs growing out of their noses.

Mr. SENDAK: Mm-hmm. Yeah. All old relatives, I said.

GROSS: Yeah. Old relatives, exactly. Exactly.

Mr. SENDAK: Relatives, yeah.

GROSS: And that really struck a chord. And then I started thinking, `Well,
I'm one of those people now.' I mean, I don't know if I actually have hair
growing out of my nose, but, you know, I have some of those things that I'm
sure kind of like scare kids.

Mr. SENDAK: Oh, sure.

GROSS: And do you have your sense of yourself as that, too, of like, you
know, a monster to some kids?

Mr. SENDAK: Of course. Of course I have. I see it in their eyes when I'm
autographing books, which I don't like to do much anymore. And children are
shoved at me.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SENDAK: They have no idea why they're on the line. They'd much rather
be in the bathroom. And they're standing on line, and they're being told
something which is so frightening and confusing, which is being told by mom or
a dad, `This is the man you like so much, honey. This is the man who did your
favorite book.' And they clutch their book even closer to them. That really
means he's going to take it away, because if this is the man's favorite book
then he's going to take your book. And the look of alarm and the tears, and
they stare at me like pure hatred. Who is this elderly, short man sitting
behind a desk who's going to take their book away?

Then on top of that, the parents say, `Now give him your book, honey. He
wants to write something in it.' Well, there they've been told, `Don't write
in a book.' OK? Why then is it all right for a perfect stranger to write in
their book? It's horrible for them. And I become horrible, unwittingly. I
make children cry.

GROSS: They cry when they get up there?

Mr. SENDAK: They cry when they meet me because they don't know what I'm
doing. That's why I've stopped autographing for the most part.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. SENDAK: For that very, very reason. It's such a paradox that I, who
adore them and am interested in their welfare, should become their enemy.
It's only because it's set up that way. If I'm to visit a school, they're all
warned, threatened and browbeaten for three days before I get there. `Now, I
want all you to be nice, and you must raise your hand, and I want everyone to
go to the bathroom before Mr. Sendak comes.' I mean, their lives are ruined.
So why should I be the person who does that to them?


BIANCULLI: Maurice Sendak speaking to Terry Gross in 1993. New York's 92nd
Street Y celebrates his 80th birthday this Monday. I'm David Bianculli, and
this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: B.B. King on his music and life

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

BIANCULLI: Blues legend B.B. King was born and raised in Indianola,
Mississippi, and that Southern city hasn't forgotten it. This weekend, the
B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center has its grand opening,
featuring artifacts from his 60-year career as a blues guitarist, composer and
singer. King, who is 83, is scheduled to perform Saturday on opening night.
And on Sunday, there's a gospel and grits brunch.

B.B. King has won 14 Grammys. He's traveled the world, met four presidents
and a pope, and was named a living legend by the Library of Congress. Terry
Gross spoke to B.B. King in 1996. She asked him how he developed his
trademark style of playing single note guitar as opposed to chords or rhythm.

Mr. B.B. 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 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 guideline meaning,
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.


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?

Mr. KING: I think both together. I started to feel that I, you know, had to
be a good entertainer to...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. 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. 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.

(Soundbite of "Why I Sing the Blues")

Mr. 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
Mm, I've really paid my dues

I've laid in a ghetto flats, cold and numb
I've heard the rats tell the bedbugs to give the roaches some
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'
And 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 Lucille

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

Mr. KING: (Singing)
My kids are going to grow up,
Going to...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: You're from a family of sharecroppers. What was the work that you had
to do?

Mr. KING: Well, I was a regular hand when I was about seven. I chopped
cotton. I picked cotton. I helped to plant it. 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?

Mr. 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, `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 1800.'

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.'

Mr. KING: Well, not really. Believe it or not, people 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 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

A lot of the people, including myself, the early years, just thought that this
was it, you know. You raised your families and you get old, die, your
families take over, kids and what have you. And it's ongoing process, if you
will. But I somehow later start to feel that there was more for me, and a few
others. I think the same way with young people today, they feel that they're
not really happy with the status quo.

GROSS: It's a great story, how you left the plantation. You were driving a
tractor--this was a problematic tractor. 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.

Mr. KING: Broke off, yes.

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

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

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh. Even worse.

Mr. KING: No. Well, he'd never killed anybody, but he was--I don't mean it
that way, but scared to death, you know, like if 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 mama's going to 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 of there. Scared me half to death,
so I panicked and left, left to hitchhike 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 on there and take your licks,' I mean,
`Take your medicine.' So I finally went back, and Mr. Barrett was a very nice
guy, a man that I admired so much I wished I could be a lot more like him..

BIANCULLI: B.B. King speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with blues legend B.B.
King. The B.B. King Museum opens this weekend in his hometown, Indianola,

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 for Lowell Fulsom.

Mr. KING: Yes. Right.

GROSS: This was your first number one record on the R&B charts.

Mr. KING: Very first.

GROSS: You're coming into your own here, don't you think, as a stylist?

Mr. KING: I'm a very happy guy to know that somebody told 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: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of "Three O'Clock Blues")

Mr. KING: (Singing) Now, here it is, 3:00 in the morning
Can't even close my eyes
Well, 3:00 in the morning, baby
Can't even close my eyes
Well, I can't find my baby
No, and I can't be satisfied

(End of soundbite)

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?

Mr. 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, because my music wasn't taking care of
me. And when I made the "Three O'Clock Blues," I started then to get
guarantees, maybe like four or $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. I
was able to do many things that I hadn't been able to do prior to that.

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 'n' roll had
started to do--Chuck Berry, Little Richard. Did you want to cross over? Were
you frustrated that you weren't crossing over?

Mr. 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. 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 liked Chuck Berry, all these
guys to me were very talented, and they was very energetic--Lloyd Price, and
so on--all of them were 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 other ways,
musically or entertaining.

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--Ike 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?

Mr. 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 hardhat and be Fred Astaire or Nat Cole.

GROSS: Be real suave.

Mr. KING: Yeah. 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 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 Theatre in Washington, the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, and the master
itself was the Apollo Theater in New York, in Harlem. 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 are 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.

Mr. KING: `Sing "Three O'Clock Blues."'

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KING: `Sing the songs that you sing the way you sing them.' He said,
`Now, all those 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: 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."

Mr. KING: Right.

GROSS: I mean, jeez, you don't even play guitar on this. It's so strange.
It's such an unusual recording. How did it feel to sing with the Ellington
orchestra and...

Mr. KING: Frightening.

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

Mr. KING: Well, I was afraid to try to sing, and trying to play guitar
would've 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.

(Soundbite of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore")

Mr. KING: (Singing) Missed the Saturday dance
I heard they crowded the floor
It's awfully different without you
Don't get around much anymore

I thought I'd visit the club
Got as far as the door
I just couldn't bear it without you
I don't get around much anymore

Darling, I guess
My mind is more at ease
But nevertheless
Why stir up memories?

Been invited on dates
I might've gone, but what for?
I just couldn't bear it without you
I don't get around much anymore

(End of soundbite)

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 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 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 you've felt really obliged to do and have been very conscious about

Mr. 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: B.B. King, it's really been such a delight to talk with you. Thank
you very, very much for your time. Thank you for being here.

Mr. KING: Thank you. You're very kind to talk with. I enjoy your voice.

BIANCULLI: B.B. King speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. The B.B. King
Museum and Delta Interpretive Center opens this weekend in his hometown,
Indianola, Mississippi.

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Burn After Reading," the new
movie from the Coen brothers. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: David Edelstein on the film "Burn After Reading"

In April, Joel and Ethan Coen won Academy Awards for writing and directing
their 12th feature film, the violent and bleak thriller "No Country for Old
Men." Their 13th film is violent, too, but "Burn After Reading" also is a
gleeful farce. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: "Burn After Reading" is a burlesque of paranoid
conspiracy films like "Syriana," with the same lead, George Clooney, as the
biggest of its buffoons. The movie is a boisterous doodle, and it's a little
thin, but it's fun to think about in light of Joel and Ethan Coen's pet theme:
tunnel vision. In their films, people act out of such narrow self-interest
they become, as the title of the Coens' first feature spells out, blood
simple. No one sees the whole picture, except the audience, which laughs at
the monkeyshines or, in the case of "No Country for Old Men," gasps at the

"No Country," adapted from Cormac McCarthy, gave the Coens' cynicism weight.
God had left the field, chaos ruled, stooges died meaningless deaths. I found
it almost too upsetting, and it must have been a workout for the Coens as
well, because it turns out they wrote "Burn After Reading" simultaneously,
going back and forth between, literally, the sublime and the ridiculous.

The brothers are masters at taking found objects--cliches, genre tropes--and
mixing them into a uniquely Coensian fruitcake. Here they open with the
camera plunging from a satellite view of Earth to CIA headquarters while drums
pound portentously. An intelligence analyst, played by John Malkovich, is
brusquely demoted, and we're cued by the somber setup to think he's too good
at his job and has tread on higher-ups' toes. But it turns out his demotion
is because he's a total lush. Now, he says, he will have his revenge. He'll
pen a memoir that exposes the agency's inner workings.

When his computer disk full of rambling notes turns up in the locker room of
his health club, a pair of employees, played by Frances McDormand and Brad
Pitt, become inept blackmailers. And I won't say more, because the narrative
is such a labyrinth of idiocy that part of the fun is getting lost.

There are lots of "in" jokes. Clooney plays a federal marshal who gets sucked
into the plot. He's involved with Tilda Swinton, as Malkovich's frosty wife,
and Clooney--who got the better of Swinton in "Michael Clayton"--is here her
inferior, a twitchy sex addict with one-tenth the charisma of, say, George

McDormand's character is obsessed with plastic surgery and whines to Richard
Jenkins, as her lovelorn boss, in a way that I'm sure bears some relation to
her own career.

(Soundbite of "Burn After Reading")

Ms. FRANCES McDORMAND: (As Linda Litzke) I need those surgeries, Ted.

Mr. RICHARD JENKINS: (As Ted) You're a beautiful woman. You don't need...

Ms. McDORMAND: (As Linda Litzke) I have gone just about as far as I can go
with this body.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Ted) I think it's a beautiful--it's not a phony bologna
Hollywood body.

Ms. McDORMAND: (As Linda Litzke) That's right, Ted. I would be laughed out
of Hollywood. I have very limited breasts, I have a ginormous ass, and I've
got this gut that swings back and forth in front of me like a shopping cart
with a bent wheel.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Ted) You know, there's a lot of guys that like you just the
way you are.

Ms. McDORMAND: (As Linda Litzke) Yeah, losers.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Ted) I don't know. I mean, am I loser?

Ms. McDORMAND: (As Linda Litzke) Oh, Ted.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Ted) You know, I wasn't always a manager at Hard Bodies.
Let me tell you...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Jenkins' nebbishy contortions are exquisite, and McDormand is
all revved up and having a jolly time. So is Brad Pitt as a muscled-up but
sweet boob who attempts to make a deal with Malkovich for the return of his
CIA memoir notes.

(Soundbite of "Burn After Reading")

Mr. JOHN MALKOVICH: (As Osborne Cox) Let me explain something to you. What
you're engaged in is blackmail. That is a felony. That's for starters.

Mr. BRAD PITT: (As Chad Feldheimer) I'm a mere good Samaritan who had a...

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Osborne Cox) Secondly, the authorized dissemination of
classified material is a federal crime. If you ever carried out your proposed
threat, you would experience such a...(word censored by station)...storm of
consequences, my friend, that your empty little head would be spinning faster
than the wheels of your Schwinn bicycle back there.

Mr. PITT: (As Chad Feldheimer) You think that's a Schwinn!

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: I love Malkovich's escalating hysteria there. But for all
its amusing curlicues, "Burn After Reading" is basically a one-joke movie, and
it feels long even at 90 minutes. That the characters are fools and nothing
is at stake is the comic point, but it's hard to shake the idea that the Coens
are on autopilot.

Their great comedy "The Big Lebowski" was a genre burlesque, too, of Raymond
Chandler, but its stoner anti-hero, played by Jeff Bridges, had a weird
stature that transcended the premise, and there was so much loopy invention
you didn't have time to get bored. Here, the only surprises are a couple of
bloody deaths that seem to belong in another film. "Burn After Reading"
suggests it's not enough to set clowns on collision courses; the filmmakers
have to have some emotional stake in the outcome. In "No Country for Old Men"
they clearly lamented the waste of life. Here they seem to give a little
shrug and say, `Oh, well.' And so, in the end, do we.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.


BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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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