I’ll never forget the time he played the Cincy Blues Festival down at Sawyer Point, and there must have been 20,000 people on the lawn! Rest in Peace, B.B.
A gift for playing the blues is something that’s inherited, says B.B. King.
“I think there’s something that comes from your soul. I can’t really explain it,” says the 82-year-old blues legend. “To me, blues is life — life, as we’re living it in the past, we’re living it today and will live it in the future. I think it has to do with people, places and things.”
In his seventh decade as a performer, the 14-time Grammy winner can probably lay claim to defining the blues in modern times. It all started in 1949, with “Three O’Clock Blues.” His hits include “Payin’ the Cost to be The Boss,” “The Thrill is Gone” and “You Don’t Know Me.”
One would think that the hard labor of working cotton plantations in Mississippi’s Delta as a little boy of 9 was King’s inspiration. But in the beginning, he was more interested in spirituals than blues, he says. He received his first guitar – that he’d eventually call “Lucille” – from a preacher.
Getting from spirituals to blues was an easy decision.
“When I used to sit on the street corners and play, whenever I played spirituals, they didn’t tip me, but when I played blues they did,” he says, with a deep-bass chuckle. “People would stop and listen, and praise me very highly when I finished (a spiritual), but they didn’t tip.”
Ask him what’s on his MP3 player, and it’s a Who’s Who of his greatest influences, the guitar-playing, blues-singing pioneers who came before him: Lonnie Johnson; Texan Blind Lemon Jefferson; Charlie Christian, a jazz guitarist who played with Benny Goodman; and the great Belgian gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
“I fell in love with (Reinhardt). Later, I heard another guy playing single-string blues on electric guitar, the first one I ever heard, and that was T-Bone (Walker),” he says. “I still listen to them and still cannot play like them.”
Over the years, years, King has gained new fans – and more awareness for blues – through duet recordings and tours with rock stars such as Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, U2 and Elton John. Saying they were easy collaborations because “they’re bluesy,” King is grateful for the exposure.
“They did me a favor. I didn’t do them one, because a lot of people had been listening to them and had never heard of me,” he says.
Even though he could have retired years ago to his home in Las Vegas, King is still on the road for at least 100 concerts per year, and he’s still writing music. (He might unveil a new tune or two in Cincinnati.) King still lives for live performance.
“Live performance is always thrilling in a way, because you get a chance to see a reaction in people. You can tell whether they like ya, or they don’t,” he says.
King, a diabetic for 30 years, says he’s “not too proud to accept a wheelchair” for his bad knee, and he sits when he performs. Being a spokesman for the National Diabetes Association has put him in another spotlight. His TV commercials for diabetes testing products are publicity, he admits, but he hopes he has helped to educate people about the disease.
On his 83rd birthday next September, King will be honored in his hometown of Indianola, Miss., with the opening of the new B.B. King Museum and Delta Interactive Center. He’s donating much of his personal memorabilia – except for his Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented to him by President George W. Bush last year, he says.
“To be honest with you, I guess I’m lucky. But I think peace of mind does help, and I’ve had peace of mind doing what I do,” he says.