I went to Bailey Hall last Wednesday night with the intention of gauging a legend — height, weight, mode of dress. But during his show, B.B. King, the legendary blues guitarist, sat at center stage only to rise once during the night. It came after the concert’s finale, when two leather-and-gold-clad members of his entourage fitted King back into the trench coat and Kangol that he came with. His brief moment of departure, though, was not nearly enough to gauge his height, especially from behind the screaming mass of fans that chanted his name well into the post show ritual. So I hoped, upon arriving back-stage, to find out, among other things, just how tall he is.
I was not surprised, though, to find him sitting, content in an office chair, surrounded by his travel team, who were giving out picks and posters to everyone in attendance. As I approached him, I couldn’t help but think how many times he had been sitting in a chair just like this one, in a room just like this one, waiting to be grilled by a guy just like me. He could have been in a church in the Mississippi Delta in 1954 or waiting back-stage at the Geneva leg of U2’s Rattle and Hum tour in the mid-1980s. But, to my good fortune, the prophetically-minded, story-singing King had made his way to Ithaca, and was ready to talk about everything from booze to women, from George Burns to President Clinton.
He speaks like a grandfather, weathered and wise, but with the added edge of having been a superstar for more than 50 years. He sings about slaves, parties with N’SYNC, and speaks out about young peoples’ binge abuses. In short, he sparked more questions than I ever intended to ask. With every answer, he scratched the surface of a story that I could only begin to understand. And I never even got to see how tall he was. After our interview, though, I’m confident to report that he must stand close to an even ten feet.
D: For at least the last forty years, you’ve played almost 300 shows every year. How do you keep things fresh and how do you keep them coming out differently each time.
BB: I tell my band that we should never try to play the same things the same way, each night. You may play the same progression and you may play the same songs, but you play them as you feel them at that time. For example, you and I are talking now. If we talked tomorrow would we sound exactly like we do now? No. And we probably wouldn’t even talk about the same things. If we did, we’d add something or take something away. So, that’s the way I am with the band. So each night I tell them to play it as they feel it.
D: And that’s what keeps everything going?
BB: That’s what will keep you from getting bored. I would get bored playing “The Thrill is Gone” every night. But that was the biggest one that I had had before Riding With the King so we had to play it every night. If I didn’t, I’d get tomatoes thrown at me.
D: And why do you keep up such a grueling schedule even as you’ve attained such extreme success?
BB: Well one thing is that I’ve got the best band, I think, that I’ve ever had in my 55 years out her. And in order to keep a band together, you’ve got to give them work because some of them have families. Some of them have kids in school. So when you keep them working that makes bills. And if you’re going to have bills, you’ve got to pay them. So, her I am. Now, I don’t have to do it. Many years ago I could have retired when I was 65 or before. I’m not rich, but I could live comfortably for the rest of my life without having to work, but I do it because I enjoy it. Another thing, I wouldn’t have met you if I wasn’t playing.
D: In all your time playing, the musical landscape has also evolved. How would you say that the blues have changed in the course of your career?
BB: The blues have changed so much since I first started. Today we’ve got many young people playing and supporting the blues. They even have a B.B. King blues club in Moscow. Oh, I don’t have nothin’ to do with it, but they do have it. We’ve played in 89 different countries around the world. And we find that in every country, there are young people like yourself, and why not? Because tomorrow is your day. We’ve had ours. So lots of young people are playing [the blues] and supporting it. And that, in itself, has made it more popular than when I was trying to play it. And each year, things are different. Time passes. Things change. Just for example, when I was born, or at least when I got big enough to know about things, I’d never even heard the word Television. My great aunt had something called a Victrola. It was a thing you wound up, and put the big 78″ on it and you’d play it. You better not drop it. But anyway, I was in my teens when I saw my first television. And much older than that when I heard the word “computer.” But, you see, when you were born you probably had television in your room, probably. With MTV and other things. But we never had anything like that, so, each year, things change. You young people, some say, might not have the blues as we did, because a lot of things we went through, you won’t have to. But you are gonna’ have your problems. I did a thing once for that cat once, Heathcliff, called Rainy Monday Blues. So even though each generation of people thinks differently, they still have similar things that bug them. Therefore, everything changes a bit. I hear progressions now that I never dreamed of. And some of them, I wonder, “where the heck did they get ’em from?” Some of them, I think to myself, “Well, why didn’t I think of that?” But then, I think, Well, Jesus Christ didn’t have airplanes either, did he? And so you have your many thoughts about the world, just as we did, but differently.
D: But, then, what would the blues be to you? Are they always related to sadness?
BB: It was started, according to what I was taught as a kid, by the slaves. And it wasn’t always because they was blue. Sometimes it was, but other times it was because they was warning the other slaves about what was going on. Like in Africa, they’d do it by drawings, and the Native Indians did it by smoke. Well, I was always taught that when the slaves was brought over, they was all taught Christianity because the masters thought that, then, they would always be honest and they wouldn’t want to run away or leave. But it would still break up a family. Sometimes they’d sell someone’s lady or his children. So, you would say: “the hell with Christianity. Ain’t nobody doin’ nothin’ for me.” So you started singing what you wanted to sing. And some of the slaves got so good at it, that the slaves themselves on Saturday nights would be the entertainers. So, behind them came their disciples, and I’m one of ’em. But a lot of times, when the slaves would be in the fields, the cotton fields, you’d have one plowing, and fifteen or twenty picking cotton, and then the boss would come by and this is what would produce what we called field hollerers. The guy would be plowing and he’d start singing: [sings] “You better get up now, cause the boss is here.” And all the slaves would get up and knew just what he was talking about. They’d get up and start doin’ what they was supposed to be doin.’ So to answer your question about what the blues is to me, I try to play as if I’m in the setting with the people that I’m singing about. If I’m singing about a guy that’s cheatin’ on his lady I see him. I look right at him. I say to myself, “why are you cheatin’ on that pretty girl?” But it’s not always sad. As you might have noticed tonight, I didn’t sing anything sad. I like to make a person think in terms of some of the things they might not be happy about, but before the show is over, I want to make sure people are having a good time. And whatever it was can be like a death in the family. You always try to think about the good things that happene
d. And if you do that, it doesn’t hurt so bad. Do I look like I’m sad when I’m playing?
D: No, you look like a happy man.
BB: And I am. I’m very happy. I’m having a good time.
D: And who do you look to carry on the tradition?
BB: Oh, there are so many. You won’t miss me when I’m gone. You’ll say “hey there, B.B died yesterday.” “He did?” “Well ask Keb Mo, Johnnie Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Little Jimmy King