Thrill Still There for 80-Year-Old B.B. King

BB King has been on the road for nearly 60 years and — if he would want it — has earned a life of ease. So why is the undisputed king of the blues still making those one-nighters? That's the question that first comes to mind on his 80th birthday.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is a red-letter day for the King of Blues.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. B.B. KING: (Singing) The thrill is gone. The thrill is gone away.

MONTAGNE: Today, B.B. King is 80 years old and it's hard to imagine today's music scene without him. Music fans around the globe know his name. B.B. King has influenced generations of musicians with a stinging guitar sound that is all his own.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Music journalist Ashley Kahn caught up with the bluesman and his guitar, Lucille.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Unidentified Man #1: And now, I'd like to present to you, Mr. B.B. King.

(Soundbite of cheers)

ASHLEY KAHN reporting:

B.B. King has been on the road for nearly 60 years and has earned a life of ease, if he would want it. So why is the undisputed King of the Blues still making those one-nighters? That's the question that comes to mind today, his 80th birthday.

(Soundbite of song "Paying The Cost To Be The Boss")

Mr. KING: (Singing) As long as I'm working, baby, and paying all the bills, I don't want no mouth from you.

I've got a job that I love. I'd do it for nothing if people would pay my rent. Don't tell the promoter, though.

(Soundbite of song "Paying The Cost To Be The Boss")

Mr. KING: (Singing) ...about the way we're supposed to live. You must be crazy, woman, you just got to be out of your mind. As long as I'm footing the bills, I'm paying the cost to be the boss.

KAHN: B.B. King is the boss. There's little doubt about that. Since his first recordings in 1949, he's made more than 80 albums, played close to 20,000 shows and has broken a countless number of guitar strings.

Mr. KING: I break one once in a while. But generally I put on a new set of strings about every two weeks. If I break one tonight, I'll put a new set on tomorrow.

That's the time when I'm so motivated, when the strings sound fresh. The tone is--oh, I don't know the word but it's so pleasing to my ears.

(Soundbite of song)

KAHN: B.B. was born Riley King in 1925 and raised by his grandmother in Indianola, Mississippi. He relocated to nearby Memphis as a young man and began hosting a radio show and adopted the deejay name of Blues Boy, which he soon shortened to B.B.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KING: (Singing) Yes, when I first met you, baby, baby, you were just sweet 16.

KAHN: There's no mistaking the sound of B.B. King. His voice is warm and expressive. It can be full of joy or longing, but it's his guitar playing that carries his true signature, a stinging vibrato, more like a violinist approach than the standard string bending of most blues guitarists.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KING: I've always been crazy about the steel guitar, the flat one that the country music people use. And I learned that trill in my hand would tell my ears that it sounds a little bit like those guys. That's how it started.

(Soundbite of song)

KAHN: Generations of musicians have come to worship the man. They've listened to and learned from King's recordings. Despite the reverence, B.B. King is down-to-earth and never misses a chance to laugh at himself.

Mr. KING: At this age now, I am proud but don't like to talk about it. I think that when a person do what they believe is a right thing to do, you don't have to get patted on the head every time. I wasn't trying to impress any--well, I take that back. Yes, I was. I love girls and tried to impress them.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. KING: (Singing) I've got a sweet little angel. I love the way she spread her wings.

KAHN: I had to ask. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Mr. KING: I knew you was going to put me on the spot. I knew it already.

KAHN: I'm so sorry.

Mr. KING: It's OK. I like it sometimes. I would have finished high school. I went through the 10th grade. I would have finished high school, went to college and wouldn't get married till after 40, so those are the only things I think I'd change.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KING: (Singing) Nobody loves me but my mother. And she could be jiving too.

KAHN: B.B. King's 80th is a milestone that's being marked in a number of ways. The bluesman has broken ground for a blues museum in his hometown in Mississippi. There's two books tracing his long career that have just been published: "There Is Always One More Time" and "The B.B. King Treasures."

(Soundbite of song "All Over Again")

Mr. KING: (Singing) That's why I've got a good mind to give up loving and go shopping instead.

KAHN: Plus there's a new album featuring duets with B.B. and a variety of old friends, like Bobby Bland, Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler.

(Soundbite of song "All Over Again")

Mr. KING: (Singing) To pick me up a tombstone and be pronounced dead.

KAHN: B.B. admits that at the age of 80, he's had to slow down a bit.

Mr. KING: I don't play standing now. I play sitting now 'cause I've got bad knees and I've been a diabetic for about 25 years and a few other things.

Unidentified Man #2: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Unidentified Man #2: I said good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

Mr. KING: I can be feeling bad backstage, and the minute they say, `Now, ladies and gentlemen, here's B.B. King,' for a little while I forget whatever was hurting me.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mr. KING: Having a little fun?

Crowd: (In unison) Yeah!

Mr. KING: Let the good times roll? Let the good times roll!

(Soundbite of song)

KAHN: To meet B.B. King on record, on stage or in person is to know how gracious a musician of legend can be. Happy birthday, Mr. King.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KING: (Singing) Everybody, let's have some fun. You only live but once, and when you're dead, you're done, so let the good times roll. Let the good times roll. I don't care if you're young or old. Get together and let the good times roll.

MONTAGNE: Ashley Kahn is author of the book "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece."

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KING: Roll!

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.