It’s not quite after midnight and you’re calling a Holiday Inn in the middle of nowhere, looking for one of the greatest guitarists to ever live, who happens, at this moment, to be kicking off his shoes after one of this year’s 200-plus gigs, waiting for a room service snack, gazing pensively out the window at the open highway below his sixth-floor room. It’s late outside, and probably inside too, for this man who checks into hotels under the name “Pump Davidson,” a handle that once belonged to his great-great-grandfather, a slave.
“When you’re young, it’s hard to sing the blues,” said English singer-songwriter Nick Lowe. “Nobody believes you.” Unless you’re B.B. King, that is, who might finally not be young, but still approaches the blues with everything he’s got. King never had a worry or a wiggle pouring his guts at any age into the plaintive howls, ecstatic wails, and crossroads collisions of a musical genre that speaks not only for a people, but, possibly, all people. Born poor in Council Bluffs, Iowa, singing gospel tunes for his supper, music in his blood (however trite that sounds, it actually happens), King always felt the calling, the inchoate, locomotive charge to play, to shred, to be. He bought his first guitar for four-bits and fled to Memphis, where he connected with legendary players like Bukka White and T-Bone Walker, and the blues recruited one of its greatest soldiers.
By 25, King was recording singles with Sam Phillips, who went on to discover Elvis Presley and launch Sun Records, and playing more than 300 gigs a year, a schedule King maintained, with rare exception, well into his 80s.
It’s impossible to imagine music today without King’s half-century of contributions, the coruscating vibrato, the exalting crescendos, the fluid string-bending, the almost devastatingly intimate dialogue between the man and his instrument. It’s not for nothing that Rolling Stone named him the number-three guitarist of all time, behind only Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman, that King was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1987, and that contemporary icons like U2 and Eric Clapton routinely bow to the King.
After more than 15,000 shows in some 50 years, King was in love with the blues, even if he’s got more joy than he can pocket, no matter where he’s been or where he’s going.
Here is the "King of the Blues" in his own words:
BUSINESS SENSE. When I was in my early teens, I would sit on the street corners and I would play. I’d always start off playing gospel songs, which is what I really wanted to do. People would stop, congregate around me, listen, applaud, come over and pat me on the head, and tell me to keep it up. “You’ll be good one day,” they’d say. But they never tipped. (Laughs) When I started playing a blues song, though, they always tipped. Always. That’s when I knew I wanted to play the blues.
GOOD HEALTH. I have played more than 15,000 shows in my lifetime. Up until recently, I played almost every night of every year. I’m 85, but not dead. I’ve always been able to pick up that guitar and take the music to the people. I’m hoping it stays that way.
HOMECOMING. I’m blessed with a job that I truly love and a job that allows me to see the faces of the people I work with: the audience, that is. Every show I play, it’s like a homecoming. When you’re doing that job, then you’re sustained. It’s a good feeling to know you’re wanted by people. I never had a CD that sold 10 million copies. I’ve only had one record in my career played a lot on the radio. But I know when I come to town, my people will come and bring their love.
A GOOD ATTITUDE. When I was on the plantation growing up, I was proud I had overalls I could wear to church. Overalls are not the greatest garment a man can wear, but it covers your body and I was proud to have it. It didn’t bother me that I didn’t have a two-thousand dollar suit. I’m proud of what I’ve got, because I don’t have what I don’t got and I don’t miss it either.
WOMEN. Creation of the ladies is the greatest creation ever. I still think that today. Nothing better.
LUCILLE, THE GUITAR. That’s the only girl I ever had who don’t argue with me. She’s my favorite.
THE MYSTERY OF CREATION. Playing, for me, is like expressing my nervous system. I feel what’s going on and I play it. I’m no exception. I’m not special. I just play what I feel. When I’m playing the guitar, I try to pick out the notes that sound good to me, hoping they’ll sound good to you. It’s kind of like being a chef – I pick out the ingredients that’ll taste good to me. Maybe you’ll enjoy the meal too.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS. People have been good to me. I’m grateful to them. People all over the world. I’ve played in 90 countries around the world, and every one I’ve been to has given me a lot of love. People in music have been very good to me. No one’s ever been hostile to me in this life, even in the days of segregation. I’ve been accepted.
GOD. I’m not the holiest person you’ve ever met, but I thank God for what I’ve had and what I’ve got. I’m grateful for it all – the windows, the light, the street, and the cars. I know I’ve been looked after in this life.
This interview with B.B. King was previously published in On Gratitude: Sheryl Crow, Jeff Bridges, Alicia Keys, Daryl Hall, Ray Bradbury, Anna Kendrick, B.B. King, Elmore Leonard, Deepak Chopra, and 42 More Celebrities Share What They're Most Thankful For (2010) by Todd Aaron Jensen.