B.B. King: A Straight-talking Blues Man

“I am dumb when it comes to the guitar,” B.B. King stated.

I waited for the punch line.

Instead, he explained: “I do not know nothin’ about no alternate tunings and all that. I guess I’m like a great deal of musicians. Sometimes when I play, the guitar feels such as a portion of me, like a nerve in my nervous system. Then other times I will play and I finally set the thing from the corner and declare at it.

“I don’t play nothin’ like I’d like to play. A sound is I’ve been searching for all these years. I will know when I listen to it, although I don’t understand what it is. I guess what I am saying is, when I really learn how to play I will inform you.”

This has been B.B. King: A modest, straight-talking, one time blues singer/musician who grew up in Kilmichael, Miss., and spent part of his teen years in Indianola, Miss..

As does the rest of the world his home nation mourns. King died in Las Vegas at the age of 89.

At last count, he had played in 90 nations, including the Soviet Union. He won 15 Grammy awards and has been given the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. Two of his tunes were selected.

He was a pioneer on the guitar. Upon hearing T-Bone Walker play, King knew the sound that he chased would not come through instruments. His initial licks on Three O’Clock Blues in 1951 shook the blues world.

Buddy Guy, a bluesman 11 years younger than King, told Rolling Stone magazine: “Before B.B., everybody played with the (electric) guitar like an acoustic.”

Meaning: King was one of the first to discover how to make an electric moan and shout and shout. It would become his signature style, one which intrigued a number of the artists who had been a part of the British Invasion such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, in the early 1960s.

“Those guys from England opened the doors for a lot of (blues players),” King said. “When the British circles spoke, white America listened. I’ll praise those boys. I congratulate them on being actual men and women.”

At a September 2003 interview, King told me genres were crossed by his love of music. He climbed up on gospel music but became obsessed with the blues as a teen.

King also discovered beauty in country music.

“Ain’t nothin’ on earth more economical than that,” he explained.

I’d called King in 2003 to ask him about being listed the third-greatest guitarist ever by Rolling Stone — supporting just Jimi Hendrix, that was No. 1, and Duane Allman.

He had been stunned.

“I believe they made a mistake,” King stated. “I mean, I’d think perhaps I belong in the top 50. But in the top? I am grateful to them, but I would not have put me there.”

Rolling Stone senior author David Fricke explained the decision “that a no-brainer.”

The magazine printed another poll in 2011. Hendrix stayed at No. 1. King slipped into No. 6, Allman into No. 9.

But the article appeared high praise on King. It read: “There was a turning point, around the time of (his 1965) Live at the Regal, when his sound took on a personality that’s untampered with today — that roundish tone, in which front (guitar) pickup is out of phase with the rear pickup. And B.B. still plays with a Gibson amplifier that is long out of production. His sound comes from that mix. It’s just B.B.”

***

He quarterbacked an entire genre of songs for nearly seven decades, playing his custom-made Gibson affectionately nicknamed “Lucille.” Icons lined up to make music. U2, one of them: Eric Clapton George Harrison, Janis Joplin.

He and resident Gerald Ford received degrees from Yale University on precisely the same day.

Yet I never watched him and the fans or all the media play the star card.

I think of this guy who held a white handkerchief to wipe away tears and perspiration in September 2008 as we sat across from one another in the brand new $15 million B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola.

He talked about earning 75 cents per day chopping cotton and 35 cents per hundred pounds picking cotton for a teenager.

“I picked 480 pounds one day,” he said, an insane figure considering 200 pounds could make somebody superstar standing in the areas that were steamy. “However, I had a cousin, Birkett Davis, who could pick a bale of cotton a day. That was 900 pounds back. And, man, we had been proud of that. I am.

“I did not view our pay as slave wages or anything like this. That was a lot of money in those days. I loved my job, and that I loved my life.”

King talked about purchasing his first guitar at age 12, a Stella, for $15. He purchased a book that revealed chord diagrams. He began playing at the corner of Church and Second Street at Indianola every Saturday afternoon.

“When I played with, people would pat me on the head,” he said. “But when somebody asked me to perform with a blues tune, they’d also provide me a tip.”

I asked King — that at the time was twice divorced with 15 children, 34 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren — when there was anything that he wanted he didn’t have.

Then he grew silent and wiped his eyes. He mentioned his mom, Nora Ella King, who died when he was 9.

“I would pay $100,000 — or anything it would take — for a picture of her,” he said. “I don’t have a good picture of her in my head. A lot of people back then believed should you let someone take a picture of you, you were giving them your spirit. Plus, taking pictures was complicated and pricey. We were country people who did not have a lot of money.”

However, there he sat, in an innovative museum bearing his name, at town where folks first heard him play music.

King stated that he was honored and hoped it would strike a note.

“I want it to help those who are hungry for knowledge,” King explained, then leaned forward so that I was sure to catch every word. “I hope you’ll point out I didn’t even get an education, and I have been attempting to keep my nose above water ever since.

“And to the young people who do not think education is important, tell them: My brain is like a sponge today. I’m interested in anything out there. I want to learn. Because, to tell the truth, I feel kind of second-best when I’m around people who went to college, who obtained an education.

“Please allow the young people know this. Because I often wonder what would have come of me if I had not chosen my specific profession.”

***

He came home in 2012 into Kilmichael — a town of about 680 residents in Montgomery County, Miss. — to the unveiling of King’s Mark on the Mississippi Blues Course.

Hundreds turned out. Some simply wanted to have a look at him and listen to him talk. Others squeezed forward as soon as the ceremony was over to shake his hands, have a film made with him. He honored every request on a miserably hot day.

Following the ceremony, King was hungry and tired. He sent his grandson to bring him some pigs feet.

He was visibly emotional.

“The house folks are always so great to me, however far I travel. I am not even sure what I have done to deserve this. I imagine they think I’ve done something.”

A man who appeared to be in his 70s sat on the opposite end of a couch from King.

“B.B. told me he’d take me on the street with him if I promised to never take another drink,” he explained. “I’m still out here on the street with him”

The man said he owed his lifetime to King.

“You do not owe me anything,” King said to his buddy.

As Barbara Gauntt, a photographer, and I prepared to leave after our interview, King asked us to stay stuck for a second.

“Listen to me,” he said. “Y’all be careful driving straight back to Jackson. I go to places and inquire about so-and-so and they tell me ‘Oh, he has killed on the street.’ I need y’all to drive carefully so that I will not hear that about y’all.”

We looked at each other after departing the bus.

“Does he recognize he is B.B. King?” I inquired Gauntt.

She shook her head. “Apparently not. What a sweetheart.”

As word came that King’s health was rapidly declining, I began going through posts I’d written about him.

I ran across this quote, which seemed the you on this day to discuss. It was something that he said that afternoon in 2008 when he watched his name for the first time around the B.B. King Museum: “I didn’t go to school long enough to be able to tell you how I feel. However, I have heard that paradise is amazing. If heaven is much more beautiful than how I feel now, I’m ready to go tomorrow.”

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