The conversation continues with one of the most celebrated electric blues artists of the late 20th century.
Blues artist B.B. King, Part 2
Tavis: We’re back with night two of our conversation with the King of the Blues, B. B. King. He has never called himself that, but I love calling him that because that’s example what he is.
Can I just tell you that I was watching one of my favorite TV shows the other night in rerun – I think I know every episode – “Sanford & Son.” (Laughter) I know you’ve done a lot of guest appearances, but do you remember -
B. B. King: Yeah.
Tavis: – Riley King on “Sanford & Son?”
King: Right, yeah. (Laughter) He was a good friend.
Tavis: Redd Foxx?
King: Yeah, a good friend, and he could say anything. He usually would come around some places I’d be playing and he’d be Redd Foxx when he’d get there.
Tavis: Oh, yeah, he – (laughter) was it you that told me that he actually played banjo himself?
King: Yeah, he did play banjo.
Tavis: I never knew that. Was he pretty good?
King: I thought he was, because I can’t play at all. (Laughter) Yeah.
Tavis: All right, that was smooth, how you did that. (Laughter) Yeah, I can’t play at all, so he’s pretty good to me.
Tavis: Which leads us to a conversation – I just love that episode – but it leads us to a conversation about what you do play, and Lucille. So I suspect that every B. B. King fan in the world has heard this story at least more than once.
But for those, after all these years, who have never heard the story of how Lucille got to be named Lucille -
King: Well, everybody that looks at me now, because usually, when I’m talking about my guitar, it’s always Lucille. They look at me (makes face) like that. Then I tell them how I gave the name Lucille to my guitar.
We were playing out near a place called Twist, Arkansas.
Tavis: Twist, Arkansas. Okay.
King: They had a place for you to dance, like over here, and you eat over here. That’s where I stayed at most times when I’m on stage. They had a small stage, smaller than this. I would go in and I would start to play and eat – eat and play. (Laughter)
Tavis: Sounds good to me.
King: Two guys start to fighting. They do quite a bit of that in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, near them small joints where they gambled then. When these guys started to playing – this is in winter – they had a big pail sitting in the middle of the floor.
The one knocked the other one over on this container, and when he did, well, it spilled on the floor. When it spilled on the floor, everybody started running out, including me, and I forgot my guitar.
I had never done it before, and never have did it since then. But I went back in and I almost lost my life trying to save it. That’s when I named my guitar Lucille, because these two guys, I learned, was fighting about a lady that worked in the place where they cooked the food.
I named my guitar Lucille to remind me never to do that again. (Laughter) That’s how it came about.
Tavis: So you almost lost your life going back in to get your guitar.
King: My guitar, yeah.
Tavis: You named it Lucille, and it stuck all these years.
King: That’s all these years.
Tavis: Yeah. How do you assess, how does B. B. King assess his playing now versus back in the day? Are you still getting better? Are you still learning stuff?
King: I’m still learning, yeah, but I think I’m pretty good at it now. (Laughter)
Tavis: I like how you said that – “I think I’m pretty good.” But you’re still learning stuff, even at this age?
King: I do learn, yeah.
King: Watch this age stuff now, hear?
Tavis: I’m just asking, I’m just saying. (Laughter) I’m just saying. You’ve been doing this 60 years -
King: You might have some young girls in here. (Unintelligible) (Laughter)
Tavis: You’ve been doing this 60 years. I’m just trying to figure out what you’re still learning. (Laughter) You’ve taught everybody everything you know. What are you still learning?
King: I didn’t do it intentionally. They just got me. I didn’t do it intentionally.
Tavis: I saw you a few years ago, you may recall. You were playing in Berlin.
Tavis: I’ll never forget this as long as I live. I landed in Berlin, I’m checking into my hotel. I see a newspaper on the counter with a picture of you, and I could just – I couldn’t read it, of course; I don’t read German. But I could tell that you were in town.
I asked the person at the hotel, checking me in, I said, “Is B. B. King here? Where’s he playing?” The lady grabbed the paper and picked it up as I was checking in, and she was like, “Oh, no, Mr. Smiley, he was just here. He just left.”
I said, “Man, I come to Berlin for the first time, B. B. King is here, and I missed him?” (Laughter) She looked at it again, she says, “Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Smiley, I’m mistaken. Tonight is his last night.”
I got on the phone in my hotel room and I started calling your people back here in the States. They got in touch with your people, and I went to the show that night and I got a chance to see you in Berlin.
It was really interesting for me, because I got a chance for the first time in my life to see you play in front of a European audience. So you’ve been going to Europe, you’ve gone so many times over the years. What’s been the difference for you over the years of playing, say, in Europe, versus playing here?
King: I hadn’t played for white people.
Tavis: That’s what it was?
King: When I started to play in Berlin, I had mostly white people. We had some Black people that was in the service there that came out nights, and the wives would come out the few nights I was there.
Tavis: Right. That was your first time playing for white people en masse, when you started going to Europe.
King: Yes, right.
Tavis: Yeah. So fast-forward all these years later from when you first started going to Europe, playing for white folk, fast-forward all these years later to the audiences that come to see you now – and not just you, but other blues guitarists.
What do you make of the fact that these days, a genre that we created is celebrated by, in many ways, a lot more white folk, celebrated by them than it is celebrated by us?
King: I don’t know why that is, but I’m glad that it is.
Tavis: Why are you glad about that?
King: I get more people. (Laughs)
Tavis: What’d you say?
King: Tavis, I get more people.
Tavis: Oh, I got it. (Laughter) “I get more people.” I got it, okay. So you got the Black and the white.
King: Yeah, right.
Tavis: So you get bigger audiences.
King: There you go.
Tavis: I get it, I get it.
King: And they pay well.
Tavis: Yeah, I’m sure they pay well. The white folk always pay well. I love that. I love the white people who pay well.
King: I ain’t going to get into that.
Tavis: I love it.
King: You said that, I didn’t.
Tavis: Yeah, I said it. I said I love the white people who pay well. (Laughter)
King: You know what you just did.
Tavis: I love white people. I love them, come on.
King: I thought you said, “I like Black people who pay well.”
Tavis: But I said I like white people who – Black too. I like anybody paying well. Pay me, I’ll show up. I’m like you – if they paying, I’m going to be there. If they paying, I’m playing. It’s okay with me.
King: Okay, all right.
Tavis: All right, but it raises a serious question, though, as what do you think happens to the art form long-term if it isn’t appreciated by our people the way it should be? That ain’t to suggest that white people can’t love the blues -
King: Well, you got so many white people now -
King: So many white people now that play better than a lot of us Black people now. You want to hear some good playing, you go to the white people and listen.
Tavis: How much do you love Eric Clapton?
King: More than I care to tell you. They may think I’m funny. (Laughter)
Tavis: But he feels the same way about you, obviously. He talks about it all the time.
King: I don’t know, when I first met Eric, I guess he must have been about 18 – 17, 18, something like that. We became friends right off. I could tell then, though, that he liked to play blues, because every time he’d get with me, we’d always play blues.
I can play a few other things, but since I’ve been known as a blues singer, I think it’s okay.
Tavis: What else can you play that people might not be aware of, other than blues?
King: Bad. (Laughter)
Tavis: Rare form again tonight. I’m just trying to navigate my way through this.
King: Okay, all right. I wasn’t trying to cut you or nothing like that.
Tavis: No, please, I love it, I love it, I love it. Can you – we talked last night about the fact that when you were a kid, you played a little bit of gospel when you first got started.
King: Yeah. I thought I was pretty good.
Tavis: I’m sure you were.
King: There was a group called the Golden Gate Quartet, the Pilgrim Travelers, and the Soul Stirrers is the one that Sam Cooke -
Tavis: Sam Cooke. Yeah, I love the Soul Stirrers.
King: So I like – well, I liked all of the groups that I mentioned just now, but I also tried to play – I made a gospel record playing the guitar, and a group behind me. So I thought it was pretty good.
Tavis: Yeah. How have you maintained such a vigorous schedule? I’m trying to imagine over all these years how you have stayed on that bus, planes, trains, automobiles, and you’re still doing it at almost 88.
King: And you’re wondering how I did it?
Tavis: Yeah. You never thought, “I should just retire, I’m tired of doing this?”
King: You don’t retire when you’re broke. (Laughter) So no.
Tavis: You can’t retire, huh?
King: Not yet. No.
Tavis: Are you being serious about that or are you pulling my leg?
King: No, I’m serious, very serious about it, yeah.
Tavis: I only raise that because it goes back to the conversation we had last night about the fact that so many artists back in the day got ripped off by concert promoters, they got ripped off by record companies.
So there’s no reason at 88 you should have to play if you don’t want to play. But that means that over the years you have not made the kind of money that you deserve to have made.
King: Maybe I made it and didn’t get it, how about that?
Tavis: That’s fair enough, I take that point. (Laughter) I take that. I take that.
King: Yeah. But no, I really do like to play. I love to play. That’s one thing I did. When they used to say “Practice every day,” I did it with no bad thoughts about it, because I love to play.
Tavis: Yeah. You don’t practice any more, do you?
King: Yeah, I practice now, but I don’t – I usually let – they don’t see me practice.
Tavis: Yeah, but in the hotel room or on the bus or something, you -
King: Usually I have a room on the bus. See, the bus is quartered off. Three or four guys can sleep. I can’t sleep in the bunk so well because every time it leans like this – I’ve been in many automobile accidents, so I’m sort of afraid. (Unintelligible) a lot of curves, lot of curves, and I hate to admit it, but I’m scared.
Tavis: Yeah. Was there a particular accident over the course of your career that just kind of spooked you?
Tavis: What happened?
King: I can’t take this shirt and roll that up. I guess I’m sort of like Morgan.
Tavis: Morgan Freeman, with his arm injury.
King: Yeah. Well, mine was -
Tavis: You have an injury to your arm here?
King: Yeah, all the way. It starts back here and comes on into here. The doctors tell me that I had – I forgot the number of stitches it was from here to here, but that’s what I had.
Glass was in from here to about here, and the doctors – we was near Shreveport, Louisiana – the doctors had a knife like a butter knife, and they start doing this with it. I thought they wasn’t paying much attention to me. They was trying to get the glass out.
Tavis: Get the glass out?
King: They said they had to hurt me so they could tell where the glass was. I ain’t been back to them no more. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s a harrowing story about an accident on a tour bus in your career, but that arm was damaged, but it obviously wasn’t damaged so badly that you couldn’t recover from it and still play.
What would have happened to you, what would you have done if your arm had been so damaged that you couldn’t play guitar no more?
King: I probably would have went back to picking cotton, because I was good at that.
Tavis: But if your arm is messed up, you couldn’t do much of nothing.
King: Not as much as I did before, but seemed like it was good as a practice. It strengthened my arm.
Tavis: What I was trying to get at with that question was whether, if something had happened to you in the midst of your playing days and you couldn’t play anymore, how that would have hurt you, how that would have impacted -
King: I’d go fishing.
Tavis: You’d go fishing? Yeah.
King: (Laughs) You don’t need both hands to fish.
Tavis: You would have been okay with it?
King: No, but I had to do something to eat. I didn’t get this big for nothing. (Laughter)
Tavis: Speaking of eating that good country food, the last time I saw you, which must have been about a month ago, I guess – we are honored on this – I should say before I ask B. B. King this question.
We are honored on this TV program, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before. My staff photographer for this TV show is the youngest child of Myrlie and Medgar Evers, the great civil rights icon, Medgar Evers.
His youngest child is my photographer, and his niece, Sheila Evers, is my makeup artist. Her father, Charles Evers, is the brother of Medgar Evers, and they’re all friends with B. B. King for many, many years now.
So the last time I saw you was just a month or so ago. We were in Mississippi for the 50th anniversary -
Tavis: – of the horrible assassination of Medgar Evers, and you were there to receive an award that I was honored to present to you.
Tavis: You played wonderfully; we had a wonderful time that night.
King: I’m glad somebody woke you up. (Laughter)
Tavis: I was not asleep, man. I was paying attention the whole time.
King: Well, you hadn’t seen me since, what, Germany, as you said?
Tavis: Yeah, no, I’ve seen you since then. But we had a good time in Mississippi at this anniversary -
King: At the 50, yeah.
Tavis: For the 50th for Medgar Evers.
I’m only raising that because I wonder over the years how you have used your music, and the Evers family, Charles Evers always talks about this and thanks you.
King: He’s one of my best friends.
Tavis: He always talks about the fact that you have always been one of the persons, when the civil rights community called upon you, you were there. Talk to me about your work and your music -
King: I didn’t do as much as I should have or wanted to. I did some, but I should have done much, much more than I did.
Tavis: Why do you say that?
King: I see now so many things that’s happening that’s good, and Black people was the cause of it. That makes me almost cry, because a lot of times I could have gone, and I didn’t. I feel bad about it.
All the things that was done for me, and a lot of the marchers, white and Black, marched when I should have. But there was a few times I did, but I never marched and did any of it that would have made things better for us that you guys did.
Tavis: Not as much as you should have?
Tavis: Yeah. I take that, and that’s courageous of you and there’s a lot of transparency in what you just said, so I appreciate that comment. The flip side of that, though, is that as an artist – see, I’ve always thought that our artists are our best representation.
Because you got a chance to say things, you got a chance to do things, you got a chance to with your craft show that we were so much more than people thought we were, and that’s a contribution in its own way, is it not?
King: Yes, it is.
Tavis: I suspect, you tell me, that’s one regret that you have, but I suspect, with all that you’ve been able to do in this life of yours, that you probably don’t have too many regrets.
You’ve done – I hate to borrow the phrase, but you seem to have done things your way.
King: (Laughs) Oh, no.
Tavis: You have other regrets.
King: Yeah, many. I should play guitar much better than I do.
Tavis: Oh come on, man, see, there you go with that mess again.
King: I’m serious.
Tavis: Okay. Let me just – that statement to me is a joke, but let me just take it seriously for a second.
King: I wasn’t joking.
Tavis: Let me take it – well, it’s a joke to me because you play so well. But let me take you seriously for a second. What could you have done to play any better than you play now?
King: Practice more.
Tavis: Practice more.
King: Yeah. Now you tell me you don’t practice sometimes when you’re alone and don’t want nobody to hear you.
Tavis: Well, that’s true. I’m always studying my work, trying to get better.
King: Then why are you down on me because (laughs) I can’t help it?
Tavis: Because I ain’t the King of the Blues, man. (Laughter) I ain’t sold a gazillion records around the world. I’m not beloved everywhere I go, and people standing up and crying when they see you walk in.
You’ve had a huge impact on people’s lives. So I don’t want you walking around feeling bad that you didn’t (laughter) practice enough.
King: I don’t cry about it, but (laughter) I wish I had practiced more honestly. I tried to play like everybody I heard, and wound up not being able to play like any.
Tavis: But in the process of all that, in the process of trying to be a copy, you turned yourself into an original.
King: I guess I did.
Tavis: No, I know you did, man. You may have listened to a lot of people, but you finally got what you were looking for, was your own signature sound. For those who, again, don’t know how Riley King became B. B. King, what – does B. B. stand for anything?
King: Blues Boy.
Tavis: Where did B. B. King come from?
King: Blues Boy.
Tavis: Blues Boy.
King: Hey (unintelligible).
Tavis: We talked about that last night. We talked about – I’m just, I’m trying to help the fans out, man. (Laughter) I’m helping the fans out, and you ain’t cooperating. I’m trying to set you up to get the audience some information that I already know, and you just -
King: I’m enjoying myself, oh yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: But B. B., I wonder sometimes whether or not Riley King would have sounded as good as B. B. King.
King: No, I don’t think so.
Tavis: I don’t think so either. I ain’t trying – (laughter) I ain’t trying to talk about your name or nothing.
King: Come on. Here you are, putting me down on my own name (sounds like).
Tavis: No, no, I’m not trying to put your name down. (Laughter) I’m just saying B. B. King works, man.
King: Yeah, okay. All right, I ain’t going to say no more.
Tavis: That works. (Laughter) I was looking at your just long list of honors and accolades, and this is probably an unfair question, because you have been awarded with every possible thing you could receive.
As you look back on your career, is there something in particular that you are most proud of? You’re mad you didn’t practice more, but that’s on the down side. On the up side, on the sunny side, what are you most proud of all these years later?
King: I’ve had so many friends and so much help from so many people. That has been the one thing that I’m proud of. Sometimes I think they’re joking when they mention the things that I’ve done, and they’re praising me for it.
I start to thinking about I didn’t go to college; I didn’t finish high school, many other things. But I had honorary degrees from -
Tavis: Everywhere. Everywhere, I saw the list.
King: All right, okay.
King: But it started off with Yale.
Tavis: Yeah, and went down from there? (Laughter) Yale is pretty high up there.
King: I have one from Brown and from other – I think there’s a few more.
Tavis: Yeah, you got – I know it’s more than a few. (Laughter) So you intend to play until you can’t play no more. Is that the -
King: I get scared about that sometimes. I beat pretty hard on my drivers. “Don’t swing the curve.”
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
King: No, if I could make the money you and some of the other guys I know -
Tavis: Oh, here we go again. This is Public Television, man, you ain’t on ABC tonight. This ain’t NBC.
King: Okay, all right.
Tavis: This is PBS, man.
Tavis: But with or without money, are you committed to playing – are you going to die with Lucille in your hand? Is that the plan?
King: I hope I don’t, but I wouldn’t mind if I did.
King: I wouldn’t mind if I did.
Tavis: It’d be a fitting way to go, if you had to go that way?
King: I think so. I think so, yeah.
Tavis: Well, I hope that doesn’t come any time soon.
King: I take pretty good care of myself. Like you said, your birthday is two or three days before mine. Mine is on the 16th of this month.
King: I feel pretty good when I go in places. One thing I notice people do for me now that I’m really proud of. Any time I’m at a studio or playing a juke joint or wherever I’m playing, when my name is mentioned, people will stand. That makes me feel good.
Tavis: I’ve seen that more times than I can count. That’s why I said earlier that -
King: Yeah. Makes you feel very good.
Tavis: – you are the King of the Blues, whether you want to acknowledge that or not.
King: If you do it, it’s okay.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) I’ll do it again: The King of the Blues has been here for two nights, two nights, and I have loved every minute of it.
King: I feel special.
Tavis: Oh, I’ve been honored. I don’t know what it is that I’ve done in my life as a Mississippi boy that allowed me to come into the circle of one B. B. King, but I’m so honored that I got a chance to meet him and got a chance to consider myself a friend of B. B. King.
King: I consider you one myself.
Tavis: I’m just glad we finally got a chance to do this for a couple nights. So you know you got an open invitation to come back any time you swing this way.
Tavis: Any time. You can co-host the show.
King: Who’s at your house that cooks?
Tavis: I can work that out. (Laughter) Mama? Mama, B. B. King wants to come by for dinner tonight. Can you go on a plane and get to my house, like, really, really quick? My mama’s from Mississippi now, so you know she can cook.
King: I didn’t know you was from Mississippi.
Tavis: My mama’s from there, and so you know she can cook.
King: Yes, sir.
Tavis: We can take care of that too.
King: My mother was very good with that.
Tavis: Yeah. I love you, man.
King: And didn’t teach me to do nothing but boil eggs.
Tavis: And eat.
King: Oh, I was doing that early. (Laughter)
Tavis: I love you, and I’m glad you came.
King: Thank you.
Tavis: Good to see you.
King: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: No, it’s my delight. That’s our show -
King: Get out of here. You’re a pretty handsome guy, too.
Tavis: Well thank you, I appreciate that. I appreciate that. I want to be like you when I grow up, though. When I grow up – this’ll probably never happen for me, but when I grow up, I want to walk into a room and have people stand up too.
King: Oh, come on.
Tavis: I don’t mean stand up and walk out. I mean just stand up.
King: I’ve had that happen too. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s our show. Thanks for watching. Keep the faith.
[Clip of early B. B. King performance]
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