- 15 May 15
Portait Of The Blues Boy As A Happy, Middle-Aged Man. As the world mourns the loss of the legendary bluesman, we cast our mind back to 1979 when Niall Stokes got up close and personal with the iconic guitarist
I don’t know quite what to expect. The limo draws up and the man clambers out – a familiar sight in the rarified world of contemporary music, such luxury being a staple perk laid on by the record companies.
It’s not out of character with his style of blues either. A touch of class, a flash of style, a hint of showmanship – this is a long way from the Mississippi Delta. Which is not something I’m complaining about – the man even less so, I guess.
What takes me completely by surprise however is that he’s eating – hang it all, but it’s true – a choc ice. Here I am feeling all, reverential, about to be granted the privilege of an audience with he whom many regard as the finest blues guitarist alive today and feeling not a little intimidated at the prospect as well, and he walks over to me eating a choc ice.
So this is B.B.King. A big opulent friendly individual on first meeting, he presents no obstacles whatsoever about getting down to work: we find a suitable table around which to plonk our respective carcasses.
But I’m still feeling relatively nervous when the conversation begins.
It takes a while for the interview to flow: King has an abrupt way of answering if he doesn’t automatically see the point in what you’re saying. But once we hit on something that obviously interests him, he opens up, emerging in the process as an extremely broadminded individual, something the eclecticism of his music suggests in the first instance.
For a start, he won’t wear the cliché that white boys cannot play the blues. Not a surprising attitude at all, given that he had Joe Walsh on guitar on “Indianola Mississippi Seeds” and Peter Green similarly by his side for “B.B. King in London” – but it’s the vehemence with which he picks up on any elitism the outmoded notion implies, which is surprising.
“Whoever says that isn’t really thinking. Anybody that plays an instrument can play any kind of music, if they want to," he says emphatically.
It’s the response of a man who’s both tired and intolerant of cliched divisions or stereotyping of people and who's especially sensitive to any kind of vaguely racial distinctions. Understandably. But it’s hardly strictly accurate either, side-stepping as it does the whole questions of socio-cultural conditioning. Then he comes back to the point, he gets down to that issue.
“If a black guy say that, than I’m sure he looks at it this way. Unless you have lived and experienced some of the things that the people who grew up as we did have, then you won't have the feeling for it as one will that had the experience. That’s true. But there are a lot of white people who, along with the black people, have gone through some of the same things and a lot of them feel it equally so.
“Hunger is one of them things. No tummy thinks in terms of what colour it might be or what country it might be from, if it’s hungry.
“Love is another thing. When you feel like you’re not being loved or people don’t seem to care – that’s another thing that – well, when you’ve experienced it, I think then it comes out in whatever you do. Like if you dance or sing or play – if you’ve been hurt by a loved one from time to time or if you’ve been hurt by people, you know it’s gonna come out. Because you’re a person. Because you have feelings. Sometimes I’m weary of the world. Feeling sorry for yourself. Even if it’s just self-pity. It will come out."
The pattern with rock players is that it’s all too easy to lose the original fire that burns through the playing. A little bit of success, adulation and financial security and the edge of feeling goes out of the music. With the great blues players, however, it’s been ingrained so much deeper. Of his own development B.B. says: “Once you’ve had the experience, you know it. It’s like a person that’s being hurt – if you step on a nail or something, then you know pain. You see somebody else step on the nail, you almost flinch for them because you know the feeling. “O.K. I’ve been hungry, I’ve lived in a broken home. I’ve lived in segregation. I’ve lived in places and times where it seemed my people didn’t care. When things got better, when people seemed to start to love me, when I started to feel that there were women who cared for me, that my country cared for me – even then, I still have had that scar.
“So now, what we read about daily, where people being killed – I’m talkin’ about, say, where there’s a revolution and they say they do things that are better, but after things have changed, the country then started to kill people they said did this or that – that hurts me. That still hurts – so those scars that I had before I left Mississippi, even today, the scars are still there. The times have changed and the people have changed. It’s not like that at home any more. I’m proud now. I can stand real tall and say now, ‘I’m from Indianola Mississippi and I’m very proud to be a Mississippian’. But at one time I was not. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Though it’s different I still have the scars…
“But I'll tell you one thing If today I had a chance to do or live my life all over again, believe me, much of that I would want to do, because it taught me one thing – to love people. Because people will love you in return. And people will do things for you. That, I learned.
As you will have gathered, B.B. King is by no means a bitter man. Somehow that choc ice begins to take on the significance of an apt symbol. His albums are obviously the work of a man in love with life – a man whom, though he has seen hard times, now has the personal fulfilment of having found himself his perfect niche.
And that sense of fulfilment has inspired a basically benevolent attitude towards his environment. The last thing he seems to want to do is to act as a critic. He’s reluctant to lay an opinion on the line about any musician, unless it’s a positive one.
“I like music," he says, “and I’ll have an interest in anything anybody does musically. Everybody I hear plays something I like, though nobody plays everything I like. I don’t either. But I never heard anybody yet, that didn’t play something that I liked. So as long as there is a music scene, some parts of it I’ll like ‘cause I don’t think there is any bad music. There’s some of it that’s presented badly but there’s never any bad music, I don’t think.”
In the same way, he won’t even begin to discuss the notion that Memphis breeds soul, the Mississippi Delta blues, and Nashville country. There are no boundaries, nor borders in B.B. King’s vision.
“I think that all cities have soul. All cities have musicians and all the musicians have soul. It’s kinda like the name for an automobile. Some people think a Rolls Royce is a great automobile. A lotta other people would like a Mercedes. Some like Cadillac’s. So they’re labels - but to me a good car is a good car. Good music is good music. A good product is a good product, be it from Memphis, Chicago or Indianola, Mississippi”.
Which brings us back to B.B.’s own eclecticism and particularly the fact that he’s gone for a lusher, more showbizzy sound than some blues ‘purists’ will allow. It’s an inclination for which there are explanations on different levels. What about his use of strings – initially on “The Thrill Is Gone”, a track from Completely Well, which became a huge crossover hit and B.B.’s second million seller?
“We used strings before ‘The Thrill Is Gone’," he explains, “a lotta people think that that was the first time but we used strings in the fifties.
“I thought of doing many, many different things. I never thought that, because I was a blues musician, I had to stick to one particular trend. I always felt that anything I felt like doing, I should do. I thought that if it’s a tune you only needed guitar and harmonica for, use that – but if there was another tune you needed a whole orchestra for – use that>.
“Now that’s the way I felt all the way through. I still feel like that. So you need voices? Use them. If you feel the tune merits it, use it. I guess that’s why I always felt a little bit weird.” But there’s also the fact that B.B. is an urban individual indeed. A man who thinks ‘sales’ in a way anathema to the type who like their black artists poor and unsuccessful and downtrodden. “The main interest is the people and the product,” he argues. “You feel that if you’ve got a good product, the people will accept it. So that’s what you think in terms of – a good record. If you have that you shouldn’t have any problems selling it. The radio stations will play it and the people will buy it – and we are in the music business, believe me.”
“The people are my bosses and I try to make them happy. If I play and they don’t nod their heads or move one way to another, I’m still happy because they’re with me. But now, if they start to walk out and leave me, than I’ll start to change and go on something else. Trying anything I can”.
It’s an attitude which I’d regard as practical rather than cynical. Still, I don’t imagine he finds it easy to get radio plays, no matter how good the music it. “Midnight Believer”, despite its magnificence and extreme playability, didn’t smash any sales records.
“Yeah, if you’ve got a good product, it’s still got to have something similar to what the jockeys are playing. They just won’t take anything that’s far from what they’re doing. I guess that’s the way the world is. It’s kinda like fashion - if one thing’s the trend, then you’ll notice most people will lean to it."
And you thought your living legends were immune from all that. Still, it’s a conversation I couldn’t imagine having with Muddy Waters who’s from Mississippi also! Nor could I imagine – and I might be totally wrong – the latter powering through his third choc ice just half an hour after we’ve met.
I ask about the differences between their respective styles of blues. I’m hoping, I suppose, for a dazzling detailed analyses of the influences at work in the Mississippi area in the thirties, the distinctions, if any, between the music scene in Clarksville and Itta Bena, where Waters and King were, respectively reared – and maybe a little more besides.
B.B. gives me a short one.
“Well, it’s the same as you is a journalist and Max Jones is a journalist. You both write the way you feel, don’t you? That’s the way I explain it. Each person is an individual.”
He seems, in fact, to be little bit touchy on the subject. I get a different response when I compliment the jazzy feel in his playing.
“Thank you,” he says, “I like jazz. I listened to all kinds of music and I had many idols in different areas of music. There were many guitarists that I liked, but there were also people who played other instruments.”
Like Stephan Grappelli, who could be heard in the background doing his spot at the Alexander Palace Jazz ‘n’ Blues festival, as the interview was taking place. Also Grappelli’s old compadre of the Hot Club du Paris sessions, Django Rheinhardt – just one source of the swing in B.B.’s own thing.
Who else was he inspired by when he took up the guitar first?
“The first was a guy in the Sanctified Church a guy named Rocky Fair. His was the first electric guitar I ever heard. There were some blues guitarists also, who were playing acoustic as well as electric. Blind Lemon Jeffferson was one of them. Another Rober Johnson…” A change of tone…
“… I like Robert but I wasn’t really crazy about him. I was crazy about Lemon Jefferson. Those were the ones I was really crazy about. Then there was Django Rheinhardt, as I mentioned, and then there was another jazz guitarist who at that time used to work with Berry Goodman. He was one of the first blacks that ever worked in a white band – that was a guy called Charlie Christian."
Muddy, on the other hand, was most inspired by the legendary Johnson.
Another factor which must have influenced B.B.’s attitude was the fact that he himself worked as a D.J. – hence his cognisance of the attitudes of radio jockeys.
“I started in 1949, in Memphis, in a station called WDIA. I worked there for five years.” In fact B.B. had been introduced to the airways earlier by Sonny Boy Williamson, who himself ran a radio – the King Biscuit Boy show – on station in West Memphis. On his own show, B.B. elaborates.
“Well it was a blues show but I wasn’t restricted. I could play anything I wanted to – and would you believe I played Bing Crosby? He used to have a tune “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and I used to play it. Tony Bennett made “Rags To Riches” – I played that too."
In fact Sonny Boy also gave B.B. his first paying playing job in Memphis, where he had two gigs to do in one night. B.B.’s brief was ‘to entertain the ladies’ in a dance hall while the men went in the casino at the back to gamble. It was just him and his guitar at first and he got 12 dollars for the night.
“I’d never made that much money in my life before ‘cause I’d been working on the plantation. “Later on I hired a trio and from there to a small combo and from there to a band. That’s the way that’s done,” he says with finality.
A B.B. King interview wouldn’t be complete without mention of ‘Lucille’, a guitar-hero among guitars the world over, immortalised by B.B. in the album title Lucile Talks Back.
“Lucille has been my breadwinner for a long time,” he reflects, “if a person have a job and it feeds the person and the family – that’s the way I am by my guitar. It’s my work and it feeds me. But I’ll go further than that. It pleases me when I touch it certain ways. The sound that comes out if it is sort of like a man holding a lady that he likes. Short of having sex, it’s the nearest thing I know. I can be feeling down or sick – but if I pick up my guitar and start to play, I feel better. Always do.
“Because each time I pick up the guitar something happens that never happened before." Meaning that he achieves that moment of liberating musical magic, touching on something that’s so profound it’s beyond description. And like great blues has to be – it’s utterly moving. Later, when I ask a typical wrapper-upper – does he have a favourite guitar solo – we come back to the same point. I think it says a lot about ‘Blues Boy’.
“Every night that I play, I hit something where I don’t know where it comes from. Within a country, I find a place that knocks me out. The audience usually make me aware of it and the band also. Each night that I play, I find happiness in what I’ve done."