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."
This staunch DIY credo helped King develop his trademark string-shivering technique as well, a palpitating tone identifiable even by fans unschooled in the blues guitar. "When I was first starting to play, I heard many people play with the bottleneck," King recalls, "and I always liked Hawaiian guitar and the steel guitar. But I could never get my fingers to do that--I have stupid fingers. So what I would do is trill my hand when I would play, and my ears would say to me, 'That sounds similar to what the bottleneck players were doing.' And that's how I got into it. If I pick up a guitar now, you'd have to hold my hand to keep me from doing it. Once I started to hear people talk about it, I was into it. Today," he adds, "I try to do it better. It's gotten more smooth." As for its uniquely identified quality, King appreciates the compliment but humbly shrugs it off. "I just hope I'm doing it well enough that people do recognize me," he says.
When "Thrill" turned King from a cult-hero soul-stirrer (his Live at Cook County Jail is one of the greatest such recordings of all time) to a guest on variety shows, some blues critics recognized King for something else--cashing in. Cynics snickered that "Thrill," while bringing newcomers to the fold, was shining proof of how the blues sold only in shiny packages. The tune was seen as a watering-down of King's previously smooth-but-grittier sound. It's an argument that holds little water today, considering King's seeming unfamiliarity with the term "market" and his still-expanding and still-vital catalogue. Besides, his more recent crossover attempts have only served to illuminate his bottomless intensity while raising the bar on passion. King's spiritually cleansing, vein-busting duet with U2's Bono from 1989's Rattle & Hum, "When Love Comes to Town," was arguably the most powerful song of the year. It also gained him a whopping slab of respectability among a fresh crop of young fans. "It was hard for me to believe that a man so young could go so deep in lyrics," King says of the tune, penned by Bono, who held his ground nicely alongside the testifying King.
"Critics gotta have a job, so they criticize," he says. "They can say what they will. I've been around a while, and wisdom comes with age, and as you play you become better at what you do, particularly at entertaining. And if you're doing something that the audience don't like, you know it right away. And when you see it, you do like the coach of the football team--you change the plays. I can play for me anytime. I'm out there trying to please the people who come to see me. I want the people to want what I got."
King's depth chart continues to expand. He now holds virtually every music accolade imaginable, and each year sees more awards donning the walls of his Las Vegas home. He still works about 100 dates a year around the globe, and he's just completed a number of projects that make it clear he's not out for playing it safe. This summer he recorded a tune with opera great Luciano Pavarotti, in which King played the music to "Thrill" while Pavarotti soared over it in Italian. "Now, that was a thrill," King gushes. He's also just gigged at the White House with a number of younger blues acts, many of which are stretching out on his tour package, as part of PBS's In Performance at the White House series. King says the president was a gracious host, though it appears that the personal troubles of the past year, while an obvious source for the blues, have killed Clinton's zeal for the stage. Despite having King in his own house, Clinton claimed he'd have to pass on sitting in since he'd forgotten to bring along his horn. Coming from a man who's been known to, er, perform in the White House, the missing sax sounds like a weak out.
Fortunately, the same can't be said about the 75-year-old King, who has just finished a pair of new releases, one a full-band project and the other a star-stacked tribute album to Louis Jordan, a longtime idol. "He was the first rapper," King points out, while admitting he's less impressed by some of today's rap artists. "I don't like the four-letter words they use, and I don't like anyone talking about ladies in a bad way. Rap music, if they got a word that we don't use in front of our moms and it needs to be used to make the song better, I can go for that. But saying a dirty word just because you can say it--that I don't go for. But I do take my hat off to them. Some of 'em are very talented. You try to rhyme everything you say and you'll see."
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Some of King's peers have lamented the fact that young blacks (and whites) have adopted rap, hip-hop and related genres while abandoning the blues. King doesn't sweat it. "No, that's not troubling to me," he says. "I think about when I was a kid and boogie-woogie was the fad; my parents wasn't too crazy about that. Each generation likes to think that they are doing something nobody else has done. I'd much rather see them into music than into the streets. It's like I say: Be yourself. It's like when they invited me to play the White House. I didn't try to be Nat Cole or Duke Ellington or Woody Herman. I'm B.B. King--I play the blues the way I play them. Why should I do something else?"
King says he'll be filling his downtime on tour in an unlikely fashion--not with his guitar but with a laptop computer. It's part of a continuing education he's been furthering for a few years. "I only finished the tenth grade," he admits, "and now that I'm older, I'm trying to catch up. The computer keeps me from asking people things I should know. See, kids come up and ask me stuff, and I don't know the answers, and I'm ashamed to tell 'em that. So what I do is go get me some software, put it on my computer, and next time they ask me, I can tell 'em. You know when you meet the Queen of England, the president, the pope and so many people, you hate to not know anything to talk about."
One thing King will not be talking about is retirement, a move he says has been suggested by some and sternly rebuked by him. "When I get to the place where people don't buy my CDs or attend my concerts, then I'll go home. I could have retired many, many years ago, but I love doing what I do."
B.B. King Bluesfest '99, with Kenny Wayne Shepard, Indigenous, Lewis and Floorwax's Groove Hawgs, 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, August 17, Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre, $20.50-$35.50, 303-830-8497.