B. B. King
Tell me about King Biscuit Time.
Being on the plantation, you had an hour off at noon. So I would come out of the fields and Sonny Boy Williamson would come on at about 12:15 Central Standard Time. So we had a chance to listen to 15 minutes of live music from one of the guys that I liked a lot, Sonny Boy Williamson. And KFFA was the only station in the area at that time that played music by black people. The only one.
What did Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Jr. Lockwood do musically?
Well, I liked blues from the time my mother used to take me to church. I started to listen to gospel music, so I liked that. But I had an aunt at that time, my mother's aunt who bought records by people like Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and a few others. These were the people that she liked, and some of them I liked. Lonnie Johnson was one. Blind Lemon was too. I started to like blues I guess when I was about 6 or 7 years old. There was something about it, because nobody else played that kind of music. There weren't a lot of people that had radios at that time, but people that did have radios, especially people I worked for, listened to Nashville. Nashville had country music. All you heard was country music at the time. I liked some of it, but I didn't like it as well as I liked hearing Blind Lemon. And [later] hearing Sonny Boy, now, this is something I like!
What about Louis Jordan?
Well when I went in the army in '43 Louis Jordan was very popular. Had never seen him [in person]. I had never even heard the word "television" during that time. We had something of a machine, rather, that we called a 10 cent vendor. We put a dime or a quarter in it and it played a 16 mm clip of whomever. But you never knew who was coming up, so if you had a favorite on there, you had to keep putting money in time and time again to finally get the one that you wanted. So I had a chance to see Louis Jordan there and I thought that he was fantastic. I thought it was one of the greatest things.
When I left Mississippi and went to Memphis, the first thing I did was go over to West Memphis. Sonny Boy Williamson had left KFFA and was now [at a station] in West Memphis. So that's where I went to try to get into this business.
Well, Sonny Boy was a great big tall guy. A lot of times, his lips seemed to be red, and his eyes were red - after he'd had a drink or two (laughs). I got there and I asked him if he would let me go on his program, and he looked down at me and said, "What can you do?" And I'm half scared to death and I said, "I can sing and I can play." He said, "Let me hear you." And I did.
That day he was by himself. He didn't have Robert Jr. [Lockwood] or any other people with him. So I did my little thing and he liked it. So he put me on and let me do that one tune.
He had a place in West Memphis that he played, but this particular day he had another offer where he had a guarantee of maybe a hundred and fifty or two hundred dollars. So he asked the lady where he worked on 16th Street if she heard me [play] that day. She said yes. He said, "Well I'm gonna send this boy to work [here]." He hadn't asked me anything, but when I looked up at him, I said, "Yeah, I'll go." That's how it started off.
So Miss Annie told me, "If you work here, when you get on the radio you can advertise this place as [Sonny Boy] does. I'll give you a job. Twelve dollars and a half a night, six nights a week."
My job that night was to play for all the young people that didn't gamble, and most of 'em were ladies. I've always liked ladies. So I sat up there, and while the others would go in the back to gamble, my job was to play for them - to entertain them. I loved that. Now, to give you just a little idea of why I was so crazy about this, I'd never heard the word superstar, but I guess that's what I was at the time. A superstar tractor driver.
'Cause in the Delta, tractor driving was sorta like, you play all over the plantation, you get a chance to see all of the girls and everything. My salary was twenty-two dollars and a half a week and here I'm gonna make twelve dollars and a half per night? Oh man, God, ain't no way you can keep me from trying to get that job! Anyway, I liked that so much till I finally got a job at the radio station, WDIA, where I stayed for about five or six years.
When I first left Mississippi, going to Memphis and Beale Street was like today leaving here and going to Berlin or Paris or London or someplace. I'd never been there, and it's only 130 miles north of where I was born. But God to go there - to this great big city and the street where a lot of people hang out everyday! You didn't do that in Indianola! You'd have to be at work, not hanging all over the street. They called it loitering. But every day on Beale Street to me was like a community college. I had a chance to learn [so] much just watching the people. There were famous people that would come into Memphis and they would hang on Beale Street. Some of the great musicians would practice out at Handy's Park or someplace.
They'd sit out there and I'd get a chance to hear these great people. And I'd only heard their names [before]. [I'd] see them out there practicing - some gambling, some doing other things - but it was a whole way of learning that was new for B.B. King. I tell you I'd never seen a place like it before, and I was in awe of everything.
What musicians did you meet in Memphis?
Well I had a chance to meet Robert Jr. I met Count Basie. I met a lot of the great, great people there. I had a chance to meet Billy Epstein and many of the great people. And finally Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker.
Was meeting T-Bone exciting?
T-Bone had a way of playing the guitar. See, [in] my early years of trying to play, where I lived we didn't have electricity. So for many, many years, all of my playing had to be on acoustic guitar. But when I first heard T-Bone, I heard this electric guitar. T-Bone was, to me, that sound of being in heaven. Oh God, it seemed like whenever he played a note it just went through me like a sword.
Oh that was the one. "Stormy Monday" was one of my [favorites], but hearing him play it was great. Hearing me play it is mediocre. Yeah, God Almighty. T-Bone Walker.
But there's always been a myth about the blues singer. There's something about the blues singer that was always terrible one way or the other. And that was the myth that I heard from the beginning. [I'm] crazy about women. If there was no ladies, I wouldn't wanna be on the planet. Ladies, friends and music - without those three, I wouldn't wanna be here. 'Cause friends, ladies, music, to me, heavenly. So these three [things] really make me. But there are so many other things - like all musicians should drink; all of 'em should smoke. They all should do many of the things that society frowns on. A lot of that's a myth, 'cause I don't drink and I don't smoke.
Define "urban blues."
I don't really. Because, for example, I hear Muddy Waters. They talk about Muddy Waters and Chicago Blues. Muddy Waters was born near Rolling Fork, Mississippi. And to me he's a Mississippi person that went to Chicago and play[ed]. John Lee Hooker was born in Mississippi and went to Detroit. B.B. King was born in Mississippi and went to Memphis.
So each person is identified, in my opinion, [by] himself. For example, John Lee Hooker today still plays John Lee Hooker blues. That's from Mississippi, now in California. B.B. King still plays B.B. King blues. Lives in Las Vegas, but still plays the B.B. King blues. I think what I'm trying to say is [that there are] many titles that many of the people, learned people I guess, put on these different styles of blues to identify 'em. But in my case, it's still blues to me. It's people in Chicago playing 'em; people around the world today are playing 'em. So I can't identify with the "urban," the "delta," the "so and so" or the "so and so." I just listen to people play it.
Why is Mississippi the "Cradle of the Blues?"
I wish I knew. I read [that] most of the blues people, like myself, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and many, many blues singers, all were born within a hundred miles of each other. And [there is] this plantation that many of the blues people grew up on or near. But I didn't know where it was until after I [was] in the business a bit.
Do you think there was any difference between what you were doing with the blues and what Muddy and Howlin' Wolf were doing with the blues?
There's a big difference here, big difference. But Muddy, I think, did more for blues than anybody in recent times. Now maybe the guys back, oh, like Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon and all those, they may have [too], but in modern times, I think Muddy Waters did more for blues than any of us. Yeah, it was a different kind. I guess hardly any of us that came along during that timeMuddy Waters' time, my time, Howlin' Wolf's timehardly any of us were alike. Each of us were like disciples of the old guys but we each had our own name, our own style, our own way of doing it. So we sang the blues, but each of us interpreted what we were doing differently.
What was the B.B. King style of blues back then?
Oh, the best I could tell you is just B.B. King, 'cause I loved Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, but I [also] loved Charlie Christian, the jazz guitarist and Django Reinhardt, the French jazz guitarist. And I was crazy about T-Bone Walker. So all of these were a mixture and I think that's what made us a little bit differentsome of us liked certain things, some didn't. I would say Muddy was following Charley Patton and guys like that.
So Muddy's unique 'cause he had his own signature, you're saying.
I knew Muddy right off and I call him the Godfather 'cause he did more for it than I can think of anybody.
What about the Wolf? What was so unique about Howlin'?
His voice. He had a voice that was so different, and it still gets to you. Literally speaking, I could not name the tone exact, but I could tell you he had, to me, kind of a rough sound. By God, it could get to you, you know. He was Howlin' Wolf, nobody sounds like him.
B.B., what were your goals and ambitions when you put your first touring band together after the '50s?
My goals were to try to make a name and try to make some money. I was born on a plantation and things weren't so good. We didn't have any money. I never thought of the word "poor" 'til I got to be a man, but when you live in a house that you can always peek out of and see what kind of day it is, you're not doing so well. And your rest room is not inside the house. I always wanted something better. So when I put the first band together, I thought that things would be better 'cause I had seen people that were doing better.
Who were some of the other musicians that influenced the way you wanted to work with your band, the style?
I had seen Count Basie, I'd seen Duke Ellington, I'd seen Benny Goodman, Louis Jordan…on screen. That's who I really wanted to follow. People like that. They to me were teachers. They to me were people that really had it going. In other words, they weren't slouches at all. They to me were like professors…and I wanted to be like them.
What made you form a band that incorporated horns?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, I had heard of Count Basie. I'd heard of Duke Ellington, Bennie Goodman, Woody Herman and many, many people like them - people like Cab Calloway. Those were the people that I idolized as an orchestra or a band. The ones that had bands had horns, and they sounded so good. To hear Jimmy Rushing sing the blues with Count Basie, to me, was one of the greatest things I ever heard in my life. So I always wanted horns.
I used to sing in a gospel quartet, and I like gospel music. In fact, that's how I started out. I wanted to be a gospel singer. 'Cause my pastor in church played guitar and he'd sing. I wanted to be like him. But when I was a teenager and used to sit on the street corners in Indianola, sitting there playing I'd have my hat out there, and people that would request a gospel song would always praise me highly when I'd finish the song - pat me on the head or shoulders, and say "Go ahead son. That's great. You gonna be great one day." But they never put nothing in the hat. People that would ask me to do a blues song would always put something in the hat. And that's what started me [as] a blues singer in the first place.
Then when I got a band, the horns were my singers - support singers. Like a lot of the rock and soul singers today, they always have singers with 'em. I don't have singers - my horns are my singers.
Were you influenced by the Golden Gate Quartet?
Class, class, class, class. The Golden Gate Quartet to me was class. There were many other groups that were classy too, but the Golden Gate to me was the tops. This was before, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers This was before the Pilgrim Travelers and Lou Rawls and many other great groups that we learned about later on. But the Golden Gate was on CBS - they were on the big networks. They played places like Carnegie Hall and many other places that blacks weren't welcome in a lot of cases. But these guys were. That's why I wanted to be like them.
What about Mahalia Jackson?
Me and Reverend [C.L.] Franklin were very good friends, and we used to think that [Mahalia Jackson] was the Bessie Smith of gospel.
What about Sun Studios?
The first studio that I ever went into was Sam Phillips' studio in Memphis. The company I was with had contracted with them that any time I needed to go into the studio and Mr. Phillips had the time, they would allot the time to me. So Sam Phillips was the first. I never did record for him - a lot of people thought I did - but I never recorded for him. I recorded, rather, in his studio and he was the engineer at the time.
What were your first impressions of Elvis Presley?
When I first met Elvis, I didn't think too much of Elvis Presley. I thought he was a handsome young man, but he wasn't singing as he started to sing later. So I didn't think too much about him - his guitar or his singing - at the time. But I thought he was a nice person - it wasn't that I disliked him.
Finally I heard him do some Arthur Big Boy Crudup. I heard him do some of those songs, and then I started to turn my head a little bit. That ain't the same Elvis Presley that I been hearing. And he went on from there doing some other things that sound black to me. That's when I started having respect, respect, respect. And he sorta earned it, earned that respect from me at that time. Finally I had a chance to meet him and I found out that he really was something else. He started to be more and more and more. And he was still like that to me, Elvis was, until he died. As far as I was concerned, he was growing all the time.
What did you think of the R&B and Rock n' Roll Revolutions?
I didn't pay any attention to it. I thought it was just like "urban blues." It was just more white people doing blues that used different progressions. I called it, re-importing the blues from Europe, back in the USA. They sang a lot of the same things we did, using the same identical progressions we did and they called it "rock n' roll." Elvis was doing Big Boy Crudup's tunes and they [were] calling that rock n' roll. And I thought it was a way of saying he's not black.
The mid '50s-'56, '57-Presley comes along, Bo Diddley, Little Richard… What did that mean for you as a blues musician? That sound?
I never thought of it that way because, see, Little Richard played some blues; Elvisbelieve it or notplayed some blues; all of these guys. And I wondered why they called them rock and roll. The only reason I could see was because they were white. I couldn't see any other reason why they were rock 'n roll, 'cause a lot of the black guys was doing the same thing they were doing. So the only difference was sort of like the records when we first started making records. They would have "race records," you know, if the dude was black. That's a black one right there. If it's pop, that's a white one right there, and that was the difference. But when rock 'n roll started, in my opinionI said in my opinionLittle Richard had been doing some of the same things I heard the Rolling Stones doing. Fats Domino had been outhis way, his stylebut he was doing the same changes and progressions that these guys were doing. The only difference I saw was white and black. I don't know if it was done because of prejudice. I didn't think of it that way, but I thought of it "Okay, that's a white guy there; he's rock 'n roll. That's a black guy over there; he's playing the blues." 'Cause they hadn't, for some reason, thought of soul at the time. These guys obviously didn't have any soul. They called guys like me rhythm and blues, so somewhere along the line I guess I lost my rhythm! [And I] wind up here - just the blues, you know. To answer your question, I didn't think anything other than we had more [people] on the scene. The more, the merrier…especially when you started having the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and many guys like that. Would you believe that the Beatles helped open a lot of doors for blues players like myself?
What did it do for your career?
I didn't know what else to do. So I kept doing what I was doing because it was the only thing I knew. And sometimes I felt sad because some people liked other people and didn't like me. I felt sad, not mad. I wondered what it was about [my music] they didn't like, and why they liked the other one.
How did you feel about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones playing blues?
I was happy. When I learned that the people - especially superstars [like] the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Dave Clark Five (we could just go on and name many of them) - started to do tunes of Muddy Waters and many of the other blues singers, I was happy. I wasn't like some I've heard about that were mad 'cause they felt they were being ripped off. Anytime somebody plays one of B.B. King's records, or decides to record one of 'em, I'm a very happy person. Because I think if it didn't happen with some of the superstars like the Rolling Stones, like the Beatles, the doors would've never opened for B.B. King. But when they did start to do some of the things that I've done, then doors started to open. I started to go places that I'd never been before.
I remember one thing that I think helped me a bit again, was when people, especially black people, stopped paying attention to the blues. I built a band then, instead of having 7 or 8 pieces, I went for 13 pieces. I started to play the Basie arrangements, Duke arrangements, and many other big band arrangements. Would you believe that I was able to go into Mr. Kelly's in Chicago? I was able to go into many other places, because of that. I think management had a lot to do with that. I had the greatest manager, Sid Seidenberg, who put me in these places. We were pretty good at it. I won't say good, because that's bragging a bit to me. But we were pretty good. I was able to go into places where they were used to hearing these great artists, you know, like Count Basie, like Duke and many of the others, Benny Goodman. They would tolerate us, when we'd go into Mr. Kelly's or Robert's.
Later, I remember reading once where John Lennon was being interviewed. The interviewer asked John Lennon, what is it he would like to do, and he said, "play guitar like BB King." And I couldn't believe it.
I was booked into the Filmore West. Now we used to play the Filmore all the time, but it was then about 90% black. But this time when I'm booked to go into the Filmore West, I come up there, man, and they had about five or six stairs that led up to the doorway. And it was long-haired white people, men and women, sitting body to body going up to the door. So my old bus pulled up, and I told my road manager, "I think they booked us in the wrong place. You better go in there and check it out." So he went in, and he found the promoter, Bill Graham. Bill came out and said, "B., this is the right place." And I said to myself, "Oh God, what do I do here?" But he came out and got me.
Inside the Filmore auditorium, people were sitting down on the floor. There were no chairs, tables - everyone sitting on the floor, but they seemed to be very calm. You know, nowadays you'd be trying to step over, step around, and some guy looks at you, "Man don't step on me." They didn't do any of that. They would just bend over one way or the other and let us pass. And I went to the same old dressing room where we used to go, and I'm as nervous as a cat when a dog's around.
When Bill brought me to the stage, [he gave me] one of the shortest and best intro's I've ever had. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen…." Everyone was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. "I bring you the chairman of the board, B.B. King." Everybody stood up and I cried. That was the beginning of it.
Why do you do the B.B. King Homecoming concert every year in Indianola?
It's important that I do the concert in Indianola because when I was growing up, we didn't have any role models. The only person I'd heard of that seemed to care about us, or that we could identify with was Joe Louis, the boxer. Joe Louis and only a few educators, like Dr. Carver, George Washington Carver. And the only person that I ever saw any write up on in Indianola, Mississippi when it wasn't [someone] stealing chickens or killing somebody or something,was a guy named Johnny Jones. During the war, Johnny Jones had bought a hundred dollars in defense bonds. He was the only one.
Today, there are many who the kids can look up to. It makes me feel good that I can do something for the kids that wasn't done for us when I was growing up. So every year, the first week of June, for the last 29 years, I go back to Indianola, Mississippi and I play free concerts the whole week. And since Medger Evers was assassinated, I tie it all in together. I do what I call a "homecoming" in honor of Medger Evers. We kept that alive for these 29 years until somebody was convicted for the crime of killing him. And it's a good feeling - it's the highlight of my year to go down and see these little 7, 8, 9, and 10 year olds walk up to me like little men and women and say "How you doing B.B.?" That is a feeling I cannot explain to you.
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