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To white-bread America in 1970, the blues was an alien form of music. Ignored by the folks on Main Street, the genre was embraced mainly by record-store-hunting folkies, retro-minded rockers and weed-smoking academics. That is, until B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone" came bleeding through the nation's quadraphonic speakers and six-by-nine-inch coaxials. When the single-note opening sting of the song sliced through the tweeters, America heard a previously unseen big-city sound, all style and soul wrapped up in candy-coated strings. And when the tune's guitar intro stepped back to make room for King's voice, America had a better understanding of the third shade in Old Glory's red, white and blue. "The thrill is gone," King howled in a muscular Moses-from-Mississippi voice, and Americans, burned out on Vietnam combat footage and protests, knew damn well that he meant it. The blues had hit the big time.
"I've been very lucky," King says from a hotel room in Salt Lake City, where he's launching his current tour. "When we did that song, we really had no thoughts about doing anything but trying to make a good record. But once it was done and the little fixtures had been put to it, that's when my producers thought it could be a crossover record. So they decided they would--what's the word?--oh, 'market' it, that's it, they would market it as a crossover song. And they were right. Yes, sir," says King, who oozes sincerity and sweetness. "I wish I could get another one of those."
If he hasn't had a tune as successful--"Thrill" reached number fifteen on the pop charts in 1970--he's had plenty of other successes. Since leaving the fields of his Mississippi youth, where he picked cotton for a living before heading out for Memphis and a music career, King has maintained one of the most prolific careers in history. After cracking the hardpan of the blues charts with his 1951 hit "Three O'Clock Blues," he's made more than fifty records, a fertile output matched only by his productivity as a father: King has fifteen children. ("Of course I see them," King bristles when asked about his relationships with his numerous progeny. "When you love your kids, that's what you do.") He's also played in 88 countries and served up twelve-bar chord progressions for kings, queens, presidents and the pope, to whom he bequeathed a model of his beloved Gibson hollow-body, Lucille. Some might crinkle their noses at the thought of the papal one as a player, but, King says, "they tell me he is.
"My band had fun with me after giving him the guitar. They said as we were leaving, they could hear the pope playing 'The Thrill Is Gone.' You know they were joking," notes King.
Maybe the pontiff isn't a bluesman in robes, but it's a safe bet that he's at least aware of King's catalogue, considering the guitarist's place today as the "Ambassador of the Blues." Over the past few years, the exceedingly gracious King has taken the blues to regions far removed from the music's origins, leaving behind little pieces of America along the way. "It makes me very happy to be an ambassador of a music that as a whole is from the USA," King says. "I'm proud of this country, and to get a chance to maybe show people what we're about and what freedom is about--it makes me happy."
And how does one maintain such a lofty status over such a long haul, in a genre relegated to the back rows of the pop-music theater? For starters, says King, a ten-year vegetarian and ex-smoker who drinks only at Christmas and New Year's, he takes a cue from another famous religious figure. "I read once in a Bible story where Jesus was talking to the people," King reveals. "He told the people, 'Pay attention to the kids.' So that's what I do. Of course, I also pay attention to my manager and my record company."
He's also paid devout attention to his own muse, filtering it through his musical heroes and distilling it down to a singular, spare sense admired (and duplicated) by countless string-benders today. King received his first guitar insights from a cousin, legendary Delta blues guitarist Bukka White. He went on to wallow in the styles of the popular players of the day, many of whom he rubbed elbows with in juke joints and on back porches in his home state. "I tried to play like T-Bone Walker, tried to play like Tal Farlow. You could name so many genuine greats," he recalls. "But I could never play like any of them. I tried, but it just didn't happen."
The shortcoming was a blessing in disguise. "It's like a little story I heard once," says King, an admitted country boy who peppers his conversation with homespun homilies. "There's a fox walking under the trees where grapes was up in there, way up high. Well, fox don't climb trees, so he yelled up there to the other animals, 'Hey, guys, throw me down some grapes.' The animals were smart alecks. They told him, 'Say, man, if you want some grapes, you better come on up here and get 'em.' Well, the fox said, 'Oh, that's all right, they probably sour anyway.' That's the way I've been about playing like other people. If I couldn't play like 'em, I just figured I'd try it my way, and that way, I sound more like myself. I say to young musicians, idolize who you may, but be yourself. If I come to town and want a musician, I don't want somebody that sounds like Eric Clapton. If I want him, I'll go get him. If I want somebody that sounds like a country player, I could go get Chet Atkins. Nobody can be you."