SHARECROPPER TO SHOWSTOPPER
by Kira Albin, interview conducted in 1997
Photographs by Sharon Green
His face contorts into something between pain and ecstasy. Sweat trickles through the crevices that map his smile and glistens in his tightly cropped hair like morning dew. His body sways and his fingers stroke the neck of his most faithful and constant friend, Lucille.
It's an onstage seduction between B.B. King, the King of Blues, and Lucille, his guitar. Millions of people the world over have witnessed it and have themselves become seduced by King's rich, aching voice and soulful, responsive guitar playing.
With a 48-year career thus far, King, at age 71, has slowed down to approximately 250 gigs a year. He plays the blues the way he used to pick cotton: as if his life depended on it. And it does. Music is King's nourishment and strength, his life-long love affair, his heartache, his antidote and emollient, his joy and his purpose, his bread and butter.
Riley B. King, as he was named, was born in the Mississippi Delta-the birthplace of the blues and the home of cotton-to a sharecropper family. By age seven he was a regular hand, planting, picking, and chopping cotton, milking the cows, and working at the plantation owner's house. He lived alternately with his mother and grandmother until his mother's death when he was nine; then he lived alone and a short spell with his father.
Despite her early death, King's mother had a tremendous impact on his life, and the sorrow of that loss seems to have subsided little over time. "She told me some things that I still live with," says King. "When she was dying, talking to me, she said: 'Always try and be kind and nice to people. And if you do that, somebody will always speak up for you.'" Adds King, "And I've found that to be a fact. They really do."
King gestures when he talks, his large, strong hands strumming and picking at the air. He speaks with lyricism and the phrasing of a song, uses his voice, not just words, to convey emotion and dynamics. His face is smooth, belying his age and life experience. The three faint horizontal lines that define his forehead alternately deepen and then disappear in response to the dancing of his sparse but spirited eyebrows.
Stories bring out King's voices, the bass and treble of his emotional range. A day in his childhood, when Mama was still alive, King recalls with clarity. All cleaned up in his frippery, on their way to visit a grieving family, Nora Ella King forewarns her young son: "When I look at you, you know you stop eating," says King, mimicking his mother. And in his own youthful voice responds, "Yes ma'am." He continues, "Well, I get over there, and we started to eat. And they had little potato pies about the size of a saucer." Laughs King in an aside, "I'm crazy about potato pies. Love 'em."
Forgetting his mother's edict, Riley eats and eats to his heart's content. And just before he reaches out for a hot potato pie, his mother gives him that look. "So I decided I'd stop eating, but I couldn't leave my potato pie," continues King in his narrator's voice. "So I put it in the pocket of my little short pants. It was hot. HOT!" he emphasizes. And when his mother glanced his way again, Riley had tears streaming down his face from the pain of the burning pie. "She took me out of the house to someplace else where she could really get at me," remembers King. "That's the way I did it with my kids," he adds. "Take em' out, and then whatever we do, we don't disturb others too much."
Once outside, King's mama learns about the hidden pie and sees her son's burned leg. "I was crying, and she started to cry too," King says. "She apologized to me and said, 'I was not looking at you, I was just having a look that way. I'll never do it again."
Says King softly, "She takes me back inside, gave me pie and told me, 'You can have this.'" King pauses, his eyes moist with emotion. "I loved the lady," he says, with a little shake of his head.
His mother's words on kindness and fairness are the theme of King's life. "Civility is the cornerstone of B.B. King's character," writes David Ritz, the coauthor of King's recently released autobiography, Blues All Around Me (New York: Avon Books, 1996). "He pays generously and never fails to acknowledge [his band members'] contribution[s] in private and public. In a business where bandleaders are notorious skinflints and exploiters, B's reputation is stellar."
But as the man himself will tell you, "I haven't always had a halo around my head." With absolute candor King will tell anyone who asks about his 15 children by 15 different women, none of whom were his wives. His two marriages, the first to Martha Lee in 1944, the second to Sue Hall in 1958, both ended in divorce without children. King is married to the road, to music. And despite the attempts of many women to keep him at home, he has, until recently, maintained a staggering performance schedule averaging 330 one-night gigs over 40 years, with an average of 250 miles between each job.
King says it's got to be done. Blues doesn't get the same air play that rock 'n' roll, soul, or even jazz do. "Being a blues singer is like being black twice," writes King in Blues All Around Me. "While the civil rights movement was fighting for the respect of black people, I felt I was fighting for the respect of the blues."
Finances played a part as well in keeping King on the road. One setback in particular took years to ameliorate. On a Saturday afternoon in 1958, King's tour bus, Big Red, burned up in a fiery accident. Luckily, King wasn't on the bus and none of his entourage were hurt. But just one day before the crash, King's insurance was terminated when his insurance company was suspended for shady business practices. "It was the beginning of my IRS blues," writes King. "Instead of paying unemployment taxes, I had to use my $10,000 savings as the down payment on a new Skyliner bus worth $27,000."
King's penchant for gambling didn't help, nor did the addition of each new mouth to feed. But with Sid Seidenberg at the helm, his manager since 1968, King eventually became the megastar he is today with all the financial rewards that accompany such success. He has always provided for his children, even as an absentee father, and is now supporting several of his grandchildren through college.
The King, who has performed in 70 countries, has produced 74 albums, has earned seven Grammy Awards, The Kennedy Center Honors, the National Heritage Fellowship, and the Presidential Medal of the Arts, just to name a few, began his calling on Church Street in the little country town of Indianola. The International Ambassador of Blues, who once had aspirations of being a preacher, would sit on a street corner on Saturdays and accompany himself on guitar to such songs as "Old Rugged Cross" and "I Know the Lord Will Make a Way." King was looking for a way to make a little extra cash, but when all he got was compliments, he began to change his tune.
"Make a slight move from the sanctified to the secular," he writes. "I strum a little blues I heard Sonny Boy playing last Saturday night at the Jones Night Spot. I remember half the words and make up the other half. Something about my baby done left me and I'm feeling down; Lord knows, this here is a mighty lonesome town." Something happened. The same folks who were just flashing smiles previously, began handing out change. "That was my first lesson in marketing," writes King. "Real-life songs, where you feel the hurt and heat between man and woman, have cash value."
It has worked ever since, and it's probably no coincidence that the news of his first wife's intent to divorce inspired him to write one of his early popular songs, "Woke Up This Morning," and his second divorce resulted in the recording of his biggest hit song ever, "The Thrill Is Gone."
Second only to playing music, King loves women. He loves to love women, talk about women and think about women. It is a motif of his autobiography. He thinks of women as beautiful flowers that he wants to pick but blames himself, not the women, for being the aggressor. In his chapter "Who Can Explain Love," King explains it this way: "I make my move to women who seem kind and gentle, sympathetic and beautiful in ways beyond what most people can see. There's inner beauty, feminine beauty, what I call motherly beauty. I want a soft shoulder, a soft caress. I didn't think of the consequences of having children."
At 71, little has changed, King still likes having dates with the ladies. But he has updated his lyrics to reflect the changed attitudes men and women have about each other. In the early years King remembers "songs that was targeted to the lady, in mean ways." Now his lyrics reflect the voice of either party; a feeling that a man would have toward a woman or vice versa. Says King, "When I sing the song 'How Blue Can You Get?' and the lyrics in this one goes," and King begins to hum: "'I give you seven children/now you want to give them back.' I think that fits today. I think the lady could feel the same way about the guy."
One of King's first paid gigs in 1948 was on WDIA radio, out of Memphis, the town where his career was launched. He became the promoter of a health tonic called Pepticon-"Pepticon, Pepticon, sure is good. You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood"-a product that was good for whatever ailed you. Pepticon Boy sold a lot of product, and no wonder, it was 12 percent alcohol, something King only learned much later. But King, being in the right place at the right time with WDIA, got to be part of one of the first black radio stations.
For many years King was known only on the black music circuit, even after other black performers-Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino-began crossing over to white audiences. King says what was important to him was for people to like his music, didn't matter if they were white, black, red, or yellow. He understood that the birth of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s was stealing his thunder. He didn't have the pompadour, the duckwalk, the fancy dancing that made others so popular. And he is proud that he never tried to copy other people's style or perform music that didn't fit him. Modest about his talent, he often forgets the many superstars whose music he's influenced, such as Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
By the late '60s and early '70s, King was becoming nationally known, playing the college circuit and playing the powerhouse rock festivals. Two festivals stand out in memory. The first, in Macon, Georgia, was memorable for the Hell's Angels that got him through the traffic jam to arrive on time, and by the concert escort assigned to look after him, who showed up at his dressing-room door "without a stitch of clothing." The second was in San Francisco in 1968 at the Fillmore West. King had played the Fillmore many times before when it was a black club. But by 1968 promoter Bill Graham had turned the venue into a hippie haven for predominantly white kids. King was scared to play there, felt like a country boy out of place. Ironically, it was the first time he received a standing ovation before he played. "Couldn't help but cry," recalls King in his memoirs. "With tears streaming down, I thought to myself, 'These kids love me before I've hit a note. How can I repay them for this love?' It was probably the best performance of my life, the one performance that showed me I was finally moving in a new direction."
King never imagined he'd play for college-aged kids. His lack of education-he dropped out of high school-has been a ghost that has haunted him throughout his life. He's compensated through much self-education. On the road he carries two laptop computers, audio and video recorders, books, tapes, and compact discs. A high-tech mobile library. He never stops listening and teaching himself music, keeps up with technology and navigates the Internet, and once taught himself the technical aspects of aviation. In the 1960s he flew solo regularly until his friends and insurance company insisted he stop.
As friendly and warm as he is, King calls himself shy and values his solitude. Once at a Washington, D.C., garden party hosted by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip of England, attended by the biggest and brightest movie stars, politicians, and business leaders, King retreated to a quiet corner to sip his tea, comfortably alone. Friends and fans spotted him and a large crowd quickly congregated. Said one of the guests, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, "Looks like more people are lining up to see the King than the Queen."
His lifelong confidante is his guitar, Lucille. She knows King's every mood, every heartache, and every joy. And she has a story of her own. In December 1949, King played a nightclub in the small town of Twist, Arkansas, where the only heat came from dancing bodies and a garbage pail filled with kerosene. Fire broke out when two fighting patrons knocked over the container. Everyone fled, King included. Safely outside, King realized he'd forgotten his guitar and risked his life to retrieve it from the burning, collapsing building. Afterwards, when King learned that the two guys were fighting over a lady named Lucille, he adopted the name for his instrument, if only to remind himself never to do a thing like that again.
Today he plays Lucille the 16th, but brings Lucille the 17th-an extraordinary 70th birthday present from Gibson guitar company-to all his gigs, where she sits demurely onstage behind him. King's theory: "[She's] soaking it all in so when she's called into action she'll know what to do."
Many people think that to sing the blues, you must feel blue. But if King is depressed, you wouldn't know it. He's generous with his wide sweet smile and has a kind word for everyone. When asked recently, during a radio interview, whether the music affects his moods, King responds in good humor. "Well, there's two sides of the coin, man. If I sing a song like 'Sweet Little Angel,' the lines go: 'I've got a sweet little angel/love the way she spread her wings/When she spread her wings around me/I get joy and everything.' I'm not blue at all. I'm happy," says King playfully. "But then on the other hand, if I sing, 'Nobody loves me but my mother/and she might be jiving too'...now that's the blue side," King says. And then he laughs.
For more B.B. King visit http://www.worldblues.com