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Conversation

B. B. King on the Blues

HUMANITIES, May/June 1999 | Volume 20, Number 3

Blues legend B.B. King has composed and performed around the world for five decades. He recently joined the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William R. Ferris, for a presentation of music, stories, and history of the blues. King talked about subjects from growing on a plantation to performing with contemporary rap artists, and answered questions from the audience about his life and his art.

King’s influence on American music and generations of musicians is evident. He has received eight Grammy awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, a Presidential Medal of the Arts, a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and Kennedy Center Honors. He is a founding member of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. King was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He has received honorary doctorates from Toulagoo College, Yale University, Berklee College of Music, and Rhodes College of Memphis. In 1973, King received the B’nai Brith Humanitarian Award.

William R. Ferris: The National Endowment for the Humanities deals with American culture of all kinds, and today we are recognizing in a very special way the tradition of the blues, the music that has been a voice for American history, for our literature, for our music. And we recognize the blues in the presence of one of the greatest living blues artists of all time, a living legend of American culture, Mr. B.B. King. [Applause].

B.B. King: Thank you.

Ferris: It has been my pleasure to call Mr. King a friend. I was present when he received an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters at Yale University. He visited my classes at Yale, at the University of Mississippi, and I'm thrilled to say today he joins us in the Old Post Office to visit the National Endowment for the Humanities.

King: Thank you very much. Thank you, Bill. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I am very happy to be here. One thing I don't think Bill mentioned to you, though—I'm terrible as a musician when I don't have drums and bass. You didn't tell them all of that. But anyway, we plan to have some fun.

Ferris: I was with B. at Parchman Penitentiary where he gives a concert every year. He also recorded a classic concert on an album called "Live at Cook County Jail." He has reached into the hearts and minds of every American. At Yale in the seventies he gave the commencement address for the senior class and along with his own eloquent voice, he brought, of course, Lucille [his guitar]. And, unlike most commencement speakers, they both received a standing ovation.

In addition to having an incredible performance voice and guitar style, B. is an eloquent voice for the blues. I thought as a way of opening our afternoon with B. we might take a few questions.

King: I’m very comfortable with that.
At my age I enjoy sitting down.

What is a blue note?

[Plays a musical phrase. Audience laughter] That's a blue note.

I know you've been asked this question a million times, but how did your guitar get its name?

I used to play in a little town called Twist, Arkansas. Twist, Arkansas, for you who are not familiar, is about forty-five miles northwest of Memphis, Tennessee. I used to play there quite often. In winter it got quite cold, and they used to take something like a big garbage pail, and half fill it with kerosene. They would light that fuel, set it in the middle of the floor, and that's what we used for heat. And people dancing would dance around it.

Two guys started to fight one night, and one knocked the other over on this container. When they did, it spilled on the floor. It was already burning, so it looked like a river of fire. And everybody started to run for the front door, including B.B. King. But when I got on the outside I realized I'd left my guitar. I went back for it, but it was a wooden building burning rapidly, and it started to collapse around me while I was trying to get my guitar. So I almost lost my life trying to save my guitar.

The next morning we found that these two guys was fighting about a lady. I never did meet the lady, but she worked in the little nightclub there, and I learned that her name was Lucille. I named my guitar Lucille to remind me never to do a thing like that again. [Laughter]

What is your inspiration for your blues?

Oh. Many things. I was brought up in church. I didn't start out to be a blues singer. I started out to be a gospel singer. That's what I really wanted to be, and I believe even today that there’s God in everything around us. And I'm inspired by everything I see, even the people that do bad things. Believe it or not, I don't think it's bad people, I just think that there are people that do bad things. I heard the great Duke Ellington once say that same thing about music. He says, "There aren't any bad music, just sometimes presented badly."

I see the trees. I noticed today from Baltimore over here, trees, postcard beautiful, if you will, picture postcard-like, with the ice on them. And then when I look at beautiful ladies! So, you see, I'm inspired by nearly everything around me.

You have had a very long and productive career. How do you feel your style has changed, if it has, from the thirties and forties till now?

People have changed. I've changed. So, yes, the music has changed. I see things much differently today than I did when I first started. When I was growing up, I never heard the word "television" until I was in my teens. Never saw one or heard the word "television." I was, oh, I guess, ten, maybe twelve, years old when my dad first got a radio. The only stations we could hear was WSM out of Nashville and—I can’t remember the other one. Finally we heard another one, I think out of Pittsburgh.

And I never heard any blues like we played. Never heard any of that on radio. So, many things have changed. Chord progressions that they use today—I never heard of anything like that when I was growing up. And some of them, you know, really kind of strike my fancy. I like some of the things they do. I don't try to do it all, but some of it I do. I think it helps, too, when you try to learn a little bit. I think I've learned a little bit in fifty years.

How long have you had your guitar?

This one? About eight years. This is Lucille the sixteenth. About eight years.

Do you remember your first one?

My first guitar? Yes, very well. I was about twelve years old, and I was working for a family called the Cartledge family out near a place called Kilmichael, Mississippi. I was doing what we call down there "working for wages," kind of like a houseboy. I'd get everything that needed to be done, all they wanted me to do around the house. Milk twenty cows a day. Ten in the morning and ten in the evening.

I found this person that had a guitar, a little red Stella guitar, which is about the length of here to maybe here. I talked to my boss Mr. Cartledge, and I asked him if he would get it for me. I was making fifteen dollars a month at the time. I said, "If you get the guitar, and you will take half of my month's salary this month and the rest next month, I'd sure appreciate it." He was a nice guy. He did it for me. And that was my first guitar. A little red Stella with a big hole in the center right there.

I notice you have a fairly ambitious international schedule, and I was wondering, in your travels, which international audiences you've found to be the most receptive to your music.

The U.S.A. [Applause.] I'm kind of teasing, but not really because there was a time when the audiences accepted us better out of the States than they did in the States. Today, I'm happy to tell you that the only difference that I find, if I go to Japan or East Asia or Russia or wherever I may go, the only difference now is usually the language they speak. They all know the CDs that we've made. In a lot of cases they know them better than a lot of young people here at home.

Music is a universal language. So anyplace we play now, anyplace in the world, people love American music.

What is the relationship of your music to education and social history, and how can we preserve that for the future?

Well, we blues singers are sort of like the town criers used to be. I remember reading, watching the movie Roots, and I found that they had one person—they didn't write things down—but this person kept the records of whatever goes on. One of my idols was a guy called Blind Lemon Jefferson. And I remember Blind Lemon singing this song, "I'm singing about the year 1929." That to me was history. He was telling us then about things that was going on at that time. And I think our music is sort of like that.

We blues singers tell stories. We tell stories about things we like, things we dislike, things we wish, and things we wish would not be. All of that, if put it all together, will kind of relate to education and it also will relate to society.

You touched on the artists of today. I want you to elaborate more on rap artists.

Well, I'm happy to tell you that the CD before this last one, I worked with Heavy D. Heavy D is a rapper, and I enjoyed working with him. When I was growing up boogie-woogie was the fad of music of that time, and my Dad didn't care too much about it. I've lived through three or four fads of music like rock and roll, like soul, and so on, and I think rap is just an extension of that. Rap is something that a lot of the young people feel tells their story today. They feel that a lot of the people that's older, like myself and others, did not do enough to make things better. So they had to do it. Most new generations think that the people before them didn't do enough until they start trying to do themself. Then they find out that we DID do pretty good.

I'd like to go just a little bit further on rap. I personally like rap. I don't care for the four-letter words too much. [Applause.] Thank you. And I don't mean golf. If some of it is necessary, then I'm not against that either. It's sort of like looking at a movie that has a lot of nuditys in it. If they have that there just to sell the movie, I don't like that. But if it's necessary, if it proves a point, if it makes a statement that's positive, then I like that. It's the same thing about rap. Talking about the ladies in a bad way, a mean way—I don't like that. I wouldn't feel comfortable taking my grandson or granddaughter out when they're using that.

I'd like to go just a little further on that. Working with Heavy D, I remember the tune was "Keep It Coming." So he looked at me, and he says, "Mr. King." I said, "Yes?" He says, "I know you don't like certain things." He said, "It's one word, may I use that's a little different?" When he told me I said, "Yes, it's in the Bible, only they called him a donkey." So we had fun. To answer your question, I think rap, again, is an extension of what we've done through the years.

Which modern artists are your favorites?

Hmm. According to what you mean by "modern artists," oh, all of them. Honestly, I never hear anybody play that doesn't play something I like. And I never hear anybody play that doesn't play something I wished I could play. So I like something of all of them that I hear. That's the truth.

In Mississippi your host, Dr. Ferris, is known as the Blues Doctor. What does that mean?

Well, I can tell you what it means to me. It means that he's a good friend and has been for a long, long time.

How did you first meet?

King: How DID we first meet, Doc? We were working on blues music or something at the time.

Ferris: I was teaching at Yale, and I had the naiveté to ask B.B. if he would be willing to come and speak to my students as he's doing here, and he said, "Sure." So that was the beginning of a wonderful friendship that's led us all over the country and overseas.

King: He’s done a lot for this kind of music. In Memphis we have folk culture and all that preserves music of folk culture, if you will. And blues play a big part of that, and Dr. Ferris was the one that started this. I was introduced to blues players and blues musicians that I never knew about! That's the truth.

Ferris: I should say one of B.B.'s great dream has been to bring the blues into the academy. He had the idea of creating the Blues Archive, at the University of Mississippi, and he generously gave the Archive his entire record collection and memorabilia. So now we have a major research center where students and scholars can study the legacy of this great man and his music.

When Elvis Presley first started singing, what did you think about the quality of his song?

I thought he was a handsome young man. I used to run into him over at one of the studios [Sun Records] we used to go to; a guy called Sam Phillips ran it. I used to see Elvis there quite often. And I thought, like I said, I thought he was a handsome young man, but his playing and his singing didn't really knock me out. Then later on he started to play and sing differently. It was a guy called "Big Boy" Crudup. I heard Elvis do several tunes of "Big Boy" Crudup, and I said to myself, "Boy, this guy's gonna be all right! He sound black to me!"

Sure enough, later on, he did exactly what I thought he would do. He went on up there. We became good friends, and I have the highest respect for him. He was a great artist. He was very talented. Very, very talented. And I'm happy to say that he was a good friend.

Could you tell us another story like the Lucille story, that would spring out of your experience growing up black in Mississippi fifty years ago.

Ah. I grew up in a segregated society. Thank God for people like Bill Ferris and many of the other great people that changed it. It was quite different than what you would know today. For example, if you had good—we used to call them filling stations—if you had a good gas station, it would have "White Men" for a toilet, "White Women" for a toilet, and another one that said "Colored."

If you were black and, like myself, you wanted to stay out of trouble, you didn't go into "White Men." You went into the one that said "Colored." If it wasn't a very good station, they would have only two: "White Men" and "White Ladies," so they didn't have one for us. The same thing about water fountains. They had what we called city parks. They'd have two fountains, one that says "White" and the other said "Colored." And if you were caught drinking out of the one that said "White," you were in trouble again.

There's an old saying: "You never miss what you never had." We knew things wasn't what we thought they should be. We knew things that was done to us wasn't what we thought was fair. But we had nothing to compare it with.

And then, some of us—like on the plantation where I lived—we had good people. One was the boss of the plantation that I lived on, Mr. Barrett, Johnson Barrett. Today I wish I could keep many of his ways. This guy was a great guy, like the first person I mentioned, Mr. Cartledge. They seemed to be fair people, people that if it was a black guy and a white guy doing work, whoever didn't do the work, caught the wrath of the mouth. Not just because you were black or because you're white. It's because you didn't do what you were supposed to do.

Now, a lot of us went through that. My boss was the kind of guy that hired a black foreman for us. And we thought we lived in heaven. Black foreman? I tell you the truth, for some people, kind of like myself, it was good medicine for a guy like me. I grew up learning to respect other people, dislike what people do that you think is unfair, and try to practice to not to do it yourself. Today I've got about forty or fifty people under my employment, and I try my best to be kind of like Mr. Johnson Barrett was. Because I thought he was a nice man, a fair man.

And, if I had my life to live again and could be reborn, as they use the word in the Bible, "born again," I would not change a lot of that. I wouldn't like the segregated part, don't misunderstand me. But being born and raised on the plantation, I loved that. I wouldn't change hardly any of that except I would have finished high school, gone to college, and wouldn't get married till after forty.

Ferris:Well, I think we're going to give you just a little break, B., and talk about you. For over fifty years you and Lucille have represented the blues and our great nation throughout the world. And you have been recognized in many, many halls of power and culture. You have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of the Arts. You have been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You have received honors at the Kennedy Center, and you have received seven Grammy awards. And you have visited with other kings, and queens, with princes and princesses, and with people from all walks of life.

We feel particularly honored to have this moment to share with you. As a small token of our appreciation for what you have done for millions throughout the world, we would like to make a small presentation to you. We say to you, B., on this plaque: "A special tribute to B.B. King, Ambassador of the Blues, whose special magical, musical language forged connections among all people of this world, and whose bold imagination and love of music has enriched all of our lives." We are so happy to have you here at the Endowment.

King:Thank you very much. Thank you, Billy. Thank you. Aw, thanks so much. You're so kind.

Ferris: And now a moment that I think we've all waited for: Would you mind sharing a tune with us?

King: I would do that, but I will beg you, please don’t stop buying CDs. I have to be honest with you again. You know, most of us started as I did—blues singers, country singers, gospel singers. We never learned to keep time properly. I'm serious. Because what you do, you start to play, and if you're pretty good and people say you are, you start to play. And usually when people are dancing, they don't care too much about the progressions that you play. If you've got good beat, that's all right with them. You can play.

But when people try to play with you, and the progressions and everything—for example, you're playing a twelve-bar tune and—in some cases we blues singers might sing, you know—you're supposed to make a change rather in the first. After you play four bars, the fifth bar, for example, if you're doing [plays a chord]-- I'm in the key of G, so if I'm doing a twelve-bar song [plays same chord], after the fourth bar, I'm supposed to do this: [plays another chord], you know, a four-chord, rather. And then you come back to the one chord again. [plays chord] But most of us blues singers might sing eight or ten verses before we do that. And that just kills musicians that have studied, you know. People like George Coleman, Hank Crawford— all these guys was in school at the time. They used to play with me a lot in Memphis. And when we used to go out on dates to play, gigs as we call them, they'd look at me so--Gol- phew! You know because I'd be jumping bars and all that. But I paid them well, and they said, "Well, that's all right."

And they taught me, they taught me a lot. Being a blues singer and blues musician, I was jazz-influenced quite a bit because of those guys trying to help me. A lot of the people praise me today for playing because of the vibrato, the way I trill my hand [plays an example], and they tell me that the guitar seems to sing. But I cannot play and sing at the same time.

I started to tell about growing up and wanting to be a gospel singer. Growing up on the plantation there in Mississippi, I would work Monday through Saturday noon. When finally I graduated from plowing the mule and chopping cotton and all that, I became a tractor driver. And I never did hear the word "superstar " at the time, but I think now that's what I was, a superstar tractor driver. Our salary was the best in the Delta. We made twenty-two dollars and a half a week. Which was very good. Nobody else made that kind of money on the plantation. But on the Saturday afternoon, I would go to town after washing up and everything. We wore overalls most of the time. Overalls was what you today call jeans, with the exception you don’t have the apron part on it. We used to call them galluses, the suspenders that go across the shoulder. That's one of the reasons why now unless you came to my house you hardly see me wear jeans. Cuz I wore 'em all my life. Not that I'm against them. It's just that's all I had. And we would wash and iron them, starch them, you understand, starch them, and they looked good. We had a jumper, which was the jacket part that went with it.

I'd go to town on Saturday afternoons, sit on the street corner, and I'd sing and play. I was started to singing gospel songs because that's what I was singing then in the quartet, gospel songs. And people would come by and look at me, and I'd have me a hat or box or something in front of me. People that would request a gospel song would always be very polite to me, and they'd say, "Son, you're mighty good. Keep it up. You're gonna be great one day." But they never put anything in the hat.

But people that would ask me to sing a blues song would always tip me and maybe give me a beer. They'd always would do something of that kind. Sometimes I'd make fifty or sixty dollars one Saturday afternoon. Now you know why I'm a blues singer.

One more thing and then I'll try to do a tune for you. I remember reading when I first went to Europe that Eric Clapton had said while he was over here he had met me and said that it was one of the great things he like about the U.S. And he invited all the people of the U.K. to come out and see me when I got there, and I thought that was great. In fact, today we're the best of friends, and if you watch the Grammies this year, you will see us doing a tune together.

Anyway, we didn't have instruments like a lot of the kids have today. The only thing we had around the house usually was an old guitar or harmonica. In most cases you didn't want to play the harmonica because so many other people played it. But the guitar you could kind of pick up and play it any time. Broken strings, you take a pencil or something of that sort, and you'd put it across the neck, tie it there, and that would hide the broken part of the string. And you still could play it.

I liked country music. And I liked Hawaiian music. They use something they call the steel guitar, and they'd move the bottleneck on them. But I could never use the bottleneck like the bottleneck blues players, and like they did with the Hawaiian guitar or the country music style. I could never do that, so I learned to [plays a phrase] like that with my hand, and my crazy ears would say, "That sounds a little bit like the bottleneck."

And I started to do that, and now it's hard for me not to do that. That's how I started to play like that. Nothing I planned. It's just that, to my ears it sounds pretty good. Okay. Now you've heard all of my stories. I hope I wasn't too boring.

The young man asked me about changing [plays a phrase]-- I didn't know that when I first started. I didn't know none of that. [Plays chord] Okay. I've got a tune today that they tell me is one of the things that 's been one of my trademarks like. [Plays.]

"Thrill is gone. Thrill is gone away. Thrill is gone. Thrill is gone away. You done me wrong, baby. Gonna be sorry someday. Thrill is gone. Thrill is gone away for good. Thrill is gone. Thrill is gone away for good. I know I'll build it all one day, baby. Like I know a good man should."

Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. May I do one more? Want to grab your guitar? Dr. Ferris is gonna help me out with this one. Oh, I know, you didn't know, but he is like we used to say down home a "jack of all trades." And good at all of them.

Let's see if we can get together here.

Ferris: Oh, we're together.

King: That’s close enough for me. Some of you might have seen the movie Blues Brothers 2000. In that I'm a car dealer, mind you, not car salesman, car dealer. So I sell Dan Akroyd his first car after he gets out of the place, and when we get the group together we do a tune called "How Blue Can You Get." And I'd like to try to do just a little bit of it for you. I think we'll do it in A.

Ferris: Okay.

King: [Plays some notes] Oh, that's something else I didn't know whether the young man--oh, there he is--I didn't know the difference in the keys either. I don't know. Maybe, maybe we'll do it in A.

[KING and FERRIS start to play.]

King: Will we blow the lights out? You have to bear with me, Doc. [Starts to sing.] "I've been downhearted, baby. Ever since the day we met. I've been downhearted, baby. Ever since the day we met. I belong to nothing but the blues. Baby, how blue can you get?"

Make a break here. "I gave you a brand new Ford. But you said, 'I want a Cadillac.' I bought you a ten-dollar dinner. You said, 'Thanks for the snack.' I let you live in my penthouse. You said, 'It was just a shack.' I gave you seven children. And now you want to give 'em back. I'm downhearted, baby. Ever since the day we met. I been having nothing but the blues. Baby, how blue can you get?"

[Applause]

I thank you.

Ferris: Thank you, B.

King: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much.

Ferris: If there's another question, B. has graciously said he'll take it.

What do the initials "B.B." stand for?

Bad boy. No, no. At the beginning of my career, I was a disc jockey in Memphis. They used to bill me as "Beale Street Blues Boy," and people would a lot of times write me and abbreviate it. Instead of saying "Blues Boy," they would just say "B.B." for "Blues Boy," and I liked that. My name is Riley B. King. R-I-L-E-Y, Riley B. King. So all I had to do was just add another "b," and I'm B.B.

Ferris: We are in the presence of a national treasure. And we are incredibly grateful to you, B., for taking time out of a busy day to bring a lot of joy to everyone of us. Thank you so much.

King: Dr. Ferris, may I say this. Thank you for inviting me over today. And ladies and gentlemen thank you so very much for coming out to be with us. Thank you. You've really made an old guy happy. Thank you.

Ferris: People will never forget this.

King: I'll never forget you.