Blues Master: B.B. King

July 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: Two a.m. on a Friday night at the Club Ebony, a juke joint in the town of Indianola, Mississippi, and B.B. King, soon to turn 80, is still going strong, playing the blues on the guitar he famously calls “Lucille.” As a young man in the 1940s, King saw Count Basie and other famous musicians perform here.

B.B. KING: So many good memories. Beautiful memories.

CROWD: We love you!

B.B. KING: You love me? I love you, too. I love you…

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, after nearly six decades, often averaging more than 300 performances a year in some 90 countries, B.B. King is one of the most beloved musicians in the world, the international ambassador of a style of music born out of pain and poverty. But as King told us when we talked on his touring bus, encompassing all of life.

B.B. KING: People think that because you sing the blues, you’re boo-hoo-hoo. But all our wives don’t leave. We are just like everybody else. We’re people, and to me blues is life — has to do with people, places and things. And as long as we live and there are people, we will have blues.

JEFFREY BROWN: B.B. King grew up near Indianola, here in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of blues music. His mother died when he was nine, and King was forced to support himself, first working in the cotton fields, later through music.

REV. DAVID MATTHEWS: We worked for 50 cents a day from sunup to sundown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reverend David Matthews, who still lives in Indianola, is a childhood friend of King’s.

REV. DAVID MATTHEWS: He is a product of the adversities rather than a victim of the adversities. Many a person has fallen by the wayside who experienced what he experienced. But instead of falling by the wayside, he took it and it became a stepping stone for him to go further with his inspiration, his talent.

JEFFREY BROWN: King’s first love was the gospel music he heard in church. On Saturday evenings, after getting out of the fields, he’d come to town and play on this street corner, where he learned a valuable lesson.

B.B. KING: I’d sit on the street corner and just start singing gospel songs because that’s what I wanted to do. And generally people would come by me and they would — you know, they would praise me, pat me on the shoulders and the head, and say, “Keep it up, son. If you continue, you’re going to be good one day.” But they didn’t put nothing in the hat. But people that would come by and ask me to play the blues would always put something in the hat. Now you know why I’m a blues singer.

JEFFREY BROWN: His first hit song in 1951 was called “3 O’Clock Blues.”

Several years before, at age 23, Riley King — his given name — had hitchhiked to Memphis, and found work as a disc jockey. Known as the Beale Street “Blues Boy,” “B.B.” for short, he began to perform around town, and then around the nation, for a long time playing primarily to black audiences. Until things changed in the late ’60s, according to Charlie Sawyer, author of a biography on King.

CHARLES SAWYER: There was a change in our popular culture which brought blues to the foreground, through a combination of British rock musicians who loved the blues and brought it back to America, and a handful of American blues musicians, white musicians, principally from Chicago, who brought the blues to middle America. And they were all saying the same thing. The master of this form is B.B. King. And people scratched their heads. Who’s this B.B. King? We have to hear this B.B. King.

JEFFREY BROWN: Millions would hear King through performances and recordings that garnered 13 Grammy awards.

And now Indianola wants to preserve its local hero’s story. In early June, King was joined by town and state officials at a groundbreaking for a $10 million B.B. King museum to be built at the site of a cotton gin where King once worked.

On his visit home, King was a whirlwind: A concert for locals in Fletcher Park, the late night show at Club Ebony. Another concert the next night in honor of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. In between, he found time for one of his main projects: Passing on the blues to a new generation. In a small auditorium at Mississippi Valley State University, a group of would-be blues men got a lesson from the master about what he looks for in a musician.

B.B. KING: If he’s a guitar player and he plays like B.B. King, I don’t need B.B. King. I am B.B. King. If he’s an Eric Clapton, I don’t need Eric. Eric and I are friends. If I want Eric, I’ll go get him.

And it’s the same thing with any instrument. We all have idols. I don’t frown on idols, because all of us need idols. But you want to become yourself. Be yourself.

It’s like trying to talk like someone else. For example, if you ask me a question, I’ll answer it the way I talk. But if I tried to mimic you, then I’d have to do something, you know, differently. Well, it’s the same thing with playing instruments. You play it the way you feel it. You don’t try to mimic him or her or anyone else. You play it as you feel it.

JEFFREY BROWN: King has always acknowledged how much he learned from earlier guitar greats, like T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian. Sawyer says King then made something new.

CHARLES SAWYER: He has extraordinary dynamics. He will play a six- or seven-note figure, and in that one figure two or three notes will shout and scream and the others may whisper. And he gets the most fluid sound of any modern player, and it’s the vibrato more than anything that gives the voice of his instrument this quality, which is like the quality of the human voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fifteen years ago, King was diagnosed with diabetes. Nowadays, he performs sitting down, and he’s cut back some on the grueling schedule. But he can still strut his stuff, and he says he’s not ready to stop.

B.B. KING: I can play music every day and never get tired of it. But if my health should get bad and I can’t handle myself very well, or people don’t come to my concerts, I probably would retire. But other than that, we don’t use that word around here. The “r” word, we forget it. I just want to keep on, and I know in time I’ll have to go. But God, let me, let me enjoy while I’m living. And I do enjoy doing what I do.

JEFFREY BROWN: If all goes as planned, the B.B. King museum will open in 2007, and B.B. King will be there to play on into the night.