One of the most influential blues musicians of all time, the legendary King reflects on his longevity in the business.
Blues artist B.B. King, Part 1
Tavis: B.B. King was born into a family of sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta back in 1925. He was working in the fields at seven, and found solace in music and in the church. In the middle of the Great Depression, King hitchhiked to Memphis with less than $3 in his pocket.
He honed his guitar style in the streets of that city. His first break on the radio had him performing as “Beale Street Blues” Boy, which was later shorted to “Blues Boy” King.
Let’s take a look at a clip of B.B. King performing with his guitar, Lucille.
[Clip of B.B. King performance]
Tavis: The King of the Blues is in the house tonight – Riley B. King. Can I just tell you I’ve been looking forward to this for – I’ve been in the broadcast business now for, this is my 21st year, and we’ve talked on radio, but never one-on-one on television.
B.B. King: Never.
Tavis: We’ve hung out all over the world –
King: I thought you didn’t like me.
Tavis: – in Germany, all throughout Europe. I’ve been with you on tour and we’ve been all over the country, but never one-on-one on a TV set. So I am delighted.
King: I was missing it.
Tavis: Glad you’re finally here. (Laughter) It ain’t like you ain’t been doing nothing. You’re hard to catch up with.
Tavis: You’ll be 88 later this year.
King: Yeah, you said it. My birthday is right behind yours.
Tavis: Yeah, I’m the 13th and you’re the –
Tavis: The 16th. How you feeling? You’re looking well.
King: Tavis, I think I’ve taken about as much of this as I can stand. (Laughter)
Tavis: You look good, though.
King: Oh, God, he went at it again.
Tavis: I went at it again. I just like to mess with you. (Laughter) I want to start our conversation tonight, and I’m glad I’ve got two nights with you, tonight and tomorrow night.
I want to start our conversation talking about some things that people might not know about you.
Tavis: We know so much about your music, and I’ll get to the music, because that’s the fun part. But some things that I find fascinating that help make you who you are, that your fans and others might not know. In no particular order, you saw a lynching many years ago –
Tavis: – that impacted you and changed your life in profound ways in the Mississippi Delta. Tell me about the lynching that you saw.
King: Well, I didn’t actually see him being lynched, but I saw him being drug up the streets over to the courthouse. I was in a little town called Lexington, Mississippi.
I think it scared me more than anything else, because I was maybe a few years older than he was, so he was a boy, and I was scared after seeing them dragging him up the streets.
Tavis: How does that impact a child, a Black child, growing up in that part of the world at that time?
King: Well, as I said, it scared me, for one thing.
King: Secondly, I thought that just as had happened to that guy, it could happen to me.
So I’ve always liked ladies all my life. I guess it started with my mom. So every time I saw a pretty lady, I thought, she’s pretty, like I said. (Laughs) That’s what had happened to this boy.
King: He was like Emmett Till and what the other one, there’s another one –
King: – had the same thing happen.
Tavis: So yeah, Emmett Till, for those who don’t know the story – I think most people do – was accused of whistling at a white woman, and that was his crime. He was –
King: They killed him.
Tavis: They killed him for that.
King: They took him out in Blue Lake. Did you know we had a Mississippi lake called Blue Lake?
Tavis: I did know that, mm-hmm.
King: You did know of it?
Tavis: I did know that.
King: I forget, though, you’re from Mississippi.
Tavis: I’m from Mississippi. Yeah, like you, so I know a little bit about the – not as much as you, but a little bit about that history.
King: (Laughs) I was just a cotton-picker.
Tavis: Yeah. Since you mentioned your mother, and that you have always loved the ladies – I know that to be the case – starting with your mama, tell me about your mama.
King: My mother was a very beautiful lady, I thought. She was very good to me. I guess – she died when I was nine and a half, but if she had lived I probably wouldn’t be trying to play guitar. She wanted me to be known, but as something else. Not a guitar player.
Tavis: Yeah. Known for what?
King: Anything that’s just somebody that would make –
Tavis: Doctor, lawyer, politician, something like that?
King: – make the world – anything – make the world better.
Tavis: Yeah, but you’ve done that with your guitar. You’ve made the – you brought a whole lot of love to a whole lot of people.
King: You’re giving me so many compliments I’m going to jump up and start hollering in a few minutes.
Tavis: No, I’m just telling the truth, man. You’ve given love to me and a whole bunch of other folk for many, many years.
King: I’m happy.
Tavis: Your mother dies and you’re nine and a half. So where do you go at nine and a half? How’d you get – who raised you?
King: Well, I had quite a few relatives. I had one close relative, my uncle.
King: My mother’s brother. So I stayed with him a lot. I don’t know, my mother and my dad was divorced or in the country like Mississippi, where they was not together – they used to call it “separated.”
So I guess that has happened to me. I got (unintelligible).
Tavis: Yeah. I want to ask you about the first time you saw a guitar being played in the Black church. I’ll come to that in just a second. But while we’re talking about this, you mentioned a moment ago how different your life might be had your mother lived, that you might not have ever played guitar, because you loved your mama. Like most Black men, you wanted to make your mama proud.
King: I did.
Tavis: If Mama don’t want you to play guitar, you might have done something else.
King: No, I wouldn’t have done – I wouldn’t have played guitar.
Tavis: Played guitar, exactly, that’s what I’m saying. You might have done something else, had your mother lived.
Tavis: So the question is how different do you think your life would be if you hadn’t grown up in Mississippi?
King: She wouldn’t have had grandchildren early. (Laughter)
Tavis: You’re in rare form tonight. (Laughter) In rare form. All because you grew up in Mississippi, I see, with them pretty girls running around.
King: Oh, they have a lot of beautiful women there.
Tavis: I know they do – then and now. (Laughter) Let me go –
King: Are you married?
Tavis: Not yet. I’m not yet. I’m right behind you. (Laughter) I’m right behind you.
Tavis: All right. Let me go from pretty girls to the church, which is an interesting segue, although there were a lot of pretty girls in the church.
King: She wanted – that’s one thing, come to think of it. She really wanted me – I used to sing in a quartet, and she liked that. She also –
Tavis: Were you singing gospel or other stuff?
King: Gospel, gospel.
Tavis: I know, yeah, that’s why she liked it, yeah.
Tavis: Gospel quartet.
Tavis: So you were singing gospel quartet years ago, your mama liked that. The first time, I’m told, that you saw a guitar being played was in the church?
King: The preacher. The pastor in church.
Tavis: Tell me about it.
King: Reverend Archie Fair.
King: I wanted to be like him. He was a – we belonged to what we called “the sanctified faith,” and he was a preacher. I wanted to be just like him. People used to tell me when I was younger that I played a lot like him, and was ugly like him. (Laughter)
Tavis: No, they didn’t say that, they didn’t say that.
King: Yes they did.
King: I tried my best to make myself look a little better – didn’t work. (Laughs)
Tavis: So you first see a guitar being played in church, but did you start first – did you first start playing in church?
King: Not really.
Tavis: I didn’t think so, yeah.
King: At my uncle’s house.
Tavis: At your uncle’s house, yeah, yeah.
King: My uncle, he was like a young baby when he was around my mother, and he was the oldest.
King: But if she said something and a tear fall over here, he’d do exactly what she said.
Tavis: Oh, yeah.
King: I was a little different. She had to get my daddy’s razor strap.
Tavis: To get you to do anything.
King: Little tear. (Laughter)
Tavis: So you started playing at your uncle’s. When did you get your first guitar?
King: I started living with a family called the Cartledge family. I had seen a guy, a white person, that had a guitar, and he wanted to sell it. I offered all kind of (unintelligible) or chores or whatever if they would get me one. (Laughs) So he wanted $5 for it, so.
Tavis: So you did chores to get it?
Tavis: You wanted that guitar bad.
King: Really bad.
King: Because my uncle used to call me lazy.
Tavis: Yeah, your uncle called you lazy.
King: He’s dead, so he can’t hear me now, I think.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) But when you got that guitar, though, you went to work, so you are famously, as you know, self-taught.
King: I’m self-taught. But I finally learned that they was having little shows or night dances or whatever you call them at little juke joints not far from where I lived, and I used to go there. They wouldn’t let me play inside, but I could sit outside on the weekends, when it wasn’t raining or something.
Tavis: So you listened to what was going on inside?
Tavis: And you started picking stuff up?
King: The jukebox, yeah.
Tavis: Wow. So when did the Memphis move come in? When did you make your way up to Memphis?
King: Much later than that. I can’t remember the exact, but it was in the early ’50s.
Tavis: Right, but you went to Memphis why, specifically?
King: They had better places you could play, and they’d let people in my age. Sometimes the proprietors of the little juke joints gave me a couple dollars. I loved that. I’d go back next Saturday. (Laughs)
Tavis: So in our own words, then, even though you’re from Mississippi, how does Memphis play into the success of B.B. King? How’s that fit in?
King: Plays in all of it. I’ve ran into a guy called Rufus Thomas.
Tavis: Oh, Lord yes. (Laughter)
King: You heard of him?
Tavis: Stax Records, Rufus Thomas, yeah.
Tavis: I love Rufus Thomas, yeah.
King: Yeah. Well, what had happened, I would go to what they called the amateur show, and Rufus Thomas was the emcee.
So he’d hear my crying and whining every day, trying to get on, so he would let me on, even though maybe I was on last week. But he’d look at me. I guess I looked so pitiful he said, “B.B., you was just on last week.”
I’d say, “Yeah, but I ain’t got no money. See, if you went on, you got a dollar. If you won, you got five. I never did get the five. (Laughter)
Tavis: So what did you make of that? What did you make of the fact that those other guys who won the five may have been pretty good, but years later, you end up being the King of the Blues?
King: Well, I’ve never said that.
Tavis: I know, but I said it. I said it. (Laughter) I said it, and everybody who knows how good you are said it. You are the King of the Blues.
King: Oh, all right.
Tavis: But you never won the $5 night?
King: Never did. Never did.
Tavis: You still mad about that?
King: No, I ain’t angry.
Tavis: You finally got over it?
King: I talked about him, though, when (unintelligible). (Laughter) Yeah, I used to call him dirty names. He was one of my best friends.
Tavis: When did you know – I’m not talking about what other people said. When did you know that you were really, really good at this guitar?
King: A record company from L.A. started to recording me, and you know what they paid me for a side?
King: Two cent.
Tavis: Come on. (Laughter)
King: I’m not lying to you.
Tavis: Two cents?
King: Two cent per side a record.
Tavis: So you got four cents per record?
Tavis: Come on, B.B. King.
King: Very glad to get it.
Tavis: Four cents?
King: Yes. Before – well, I don’t do much recording anymore, but before I really stopped, I was glad to get five, five cent a record. That’s why when I see people today and they complain about what they get, and I picked cotton for $2.50 a day.
But my cousin and I used to could pick a thousand pounds a day. So like that we could stay and rest in bed until everybody else was gone to the fields, and then he would say, “You better come on out here,” else if we didn’t go to fields with the other people, we’d get bawled at.
But if we went later than the rest of the family and picked – I was averaging about 400 pounds a day, and my cousin, he picked more.
Tavis: See, as I listen to you tell this story, something is, as I listen to you tell this story, something is wrong about you making more money picking cotton than playing your guitar.
King: Then, yeah.
Tavis: Something’s wrong with that. (Laughter) That don’t sound right, B.B. King. I know the facts are right, I’m just saying it just ain’t fair, it ain’t right –
King: Yeah, okay.
Tavis: – that you make more from picking cotton than playing your guitar.
King: Not later.
Tavis: Yeah, I know, I know.
King: That was the beginning.
Tavis: I know, I know, I know.
King: That was the beginning. The beginning – I thought it was good, though.
Tavis: Yeah. What, playing the guitar or picking cotton?
King: Picking cotton.
Tavis: Oh, yeah. (Laughter) And then you started picking your guitar.
Tavis: How did – and I know there’s no simple answer to this, but if you really want to have, if you really want to get a real appreciation of B.B. King, you talk to Buddy Guy. I’ve been so fortunate over the years (laughter) to spend a lot of time with him.
Tavis: Every time I talk to Buddy Guy, I’m trying to talk about Buddy Guy –
King: And he brings up my name.
Tavis: – all he wants to talk about is B.B. King. (Laughter) It happens every time. Every time I talk to Buddy Guy, all he wants to talk about is B.B. King. He talks about the fact that he learned so much from the licks that you play.
How did you establish that signature B.B. King sound?
King: To be honest with you, I don’t know.
Tavis: You don’t, yeah.
King: I don’t know, but I – it just seemed to me that the way I played was nice. I could hear it myself. I don’t know, I always thought that Buddy Guy was really good. Still is.
There was a lot of other young players around at that time when I was coming, but there was older people like Blind Lemon, which was one of my favorites. I don’t know, just seemed like everybody I heard could play better than me and I (unintelligible).
You ever see – I don’t mean to give him a plug, but RCA, they had a trademark that was on the record players, and it was a little dog listening to the records as they play.
The signal was that the records were so good, so clear, that the dog could understand who it was. That was me.
Tavis: That was you listening all the time?
King: Yeah. (Laughter) Yeah, no, I –
Tavis: See, I think you’re too modest. Buddy Guy says about you all the time, that you’re too modest. You created a signature sound that everybody then and now wants to emulate, and you don’t even know how you did it.
King: No, I don’t. (Laughter)
Tavis: We ain’t going to mess with it then. It works, and if you don’t want to mess with it, I ain’t going to mess with it.
King: No, that sounded good to me, because that’s the way my preacher played in church.
King: Not exactly like I am, like I was, because naturally, I didn’t play blues in church. But I felt like it. (Laughter)
Tavis: Did you ever have – there are so many players. Again, you didn’t start playing in the church, but your mother loved you singing quartet. There are so many players in the Black community that come out of the church.
Tavis: Did you ever have any part in your life where you were wrestling with whether you wanted to play in the church or whether you wanted to play the blues?
King: I had to play in the church when I – (laughs) trying to play. That was the only way I could play.
King: You don’t know my mother. Boy, she was –
Tavis: She didn’t play, though.
King: Oh, she was – with a strap or something? Oh, she could beat you nicely.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Beat you nicely.
King: I would say that –
Tavis: That’s oxymoronic, but I take it – she could beat you nicely.
King: I don’t know what that mean. What’s that mean?
Tavis: You can’t beat nobody nicely, but I take your point. (Laughter) I know what you’re trying to say. I get it. That’s what I love about the blues. If you listen, you know what they’re trying to say.
Tavis: You know what the blues are saying. So I talked about the lynching that you saw and how that impacted you as a kid. Talk to me about the time you, the stint you had in the Army. You spent some time in the Army.
King: Just a short time.
Tavis: Just a short time, yeah, but tell me how that – tell me what you did and how that impacted your life, being in the Army.
King: Well, I – well first, let me tell you a little story.
King: When we went into World War II, I was a tractor driver then. I drove tractors on the plantation. So when they start calling people my age, 18, up, I was one they called.
I went to Camp Shelby. Camp Shelby’s right outside of, not far from Jackson, Mississippi. I already knew how to drive a tractor. I was pretty good with that. So they would give me a job driving a tractor, which was like I wasn’t in nothing special, because I’d been doing that all the time.
King: I kind of liked that, but they reclassified us. I said “us” because there was several of us, about 80 of us that went in at the same time. It scared me about half to death on the bus. We was on the Greyhound bus that’s going to – I’m giving somebody else a plug.
Going to Camp Shelby, it was called. Two or three of the guys wasn’t from Mississippi that went down with us. They were picking with the girls, white girls, on the side of the road, picking cotton –
King: – (unintelligible) in the back of the bus.
King: If I had been riding the bus for pay, I still would have to sit in the back. But I got through it pretty good, because I had a lot of older friends around me that had taught me about working for white people.
Tavis: So when you got in the Army, you knew how to behave, in other words.
King: Yes, sir.
Tavis: You got in and you got out.
King: Fine, no problem.
Tavis: I suspect we’ll get to talk more about this tomorrow night, but let me just put this question out now. There’s a movie that I love. I see it all the time, it’s always on cable, called “Cadillac Records.” It talks, of course, about all the artists and how they got ripped off so bad back in the day.
King: Yeah, I’ve seen that. In fact, I have it.
Tavis: What’s your worst horror story about getting ripped off over the years as an artist?
King: I didn’t – I don’t think I knew about getting ripped off at the time, because hey, I’m recording. I don’t care how much money it was. I was recording, and I thought being a recording artist – girls. (Laughter)
Tavis: If I’m recording, I’m getting girls, and the money will take care of itself.
Tavis: But at some point, though, you came to understand that you can’t survive without money.
King: I did finally understand a little bit, and some of the guys that had ripped me off was helping me out.
Tavis: Wait, wait, explain that. They were ripping you off and helping you out?
King: After I had left them they was showing me that playing pretty good then, and I should come back to them because they would give me a dime, maybe even a quarter. I then went to one of the larger companies, and here I am. I work for you now, and –
Tavis: Get out of here. (Laughter) I can go work for you. I will come carry Lucille on and off the bus, on and off the stage, any time you want me.
King: I got some guys around here wouldn’t like that.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) I don’t want to take nobody’s job from the brothers who are here with you.
Tavis: So that’s night one of our conversation with B.B. King. I’m honored that he, after all these years, finally we can get the dates right. He’s on the road all the time all over the world, so finally we got the dates right and he’s here for two nights of this conversation.
We will continue with night two of our conversation with the king of the blues, B.B. King, tomorrow night. Until then, thanks for watching and keep the faith.
[Clip of B.B. King performance]
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