B.B. King On Life, Plantation Living And His 'Droopy-Drawers' Sound "I developed in my head that I'm never any better than my last concert or the last time I played," B.B. King told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1996.
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B.B. King On Life, Plantation Living And His 'Droopy-Drawers' Sound

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B.B. King On Life, Plantation Living And His 'Droopy-Drawers' Sound

B.B. King On Life, Plantation Living And His 'Droopy-Drawers' Sound

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This is FRESH AIR. David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching!, sitting in for Terry Gross. B.B. King, the legendary blues artist, died last night after spending much of the month in hospice care. He was 89 years old. Born Riley B. King in Indianola, Miss., in 1925, B.B. King was a sharecropper's son who worked on a plantation until, as a young man, he relocated to Memphis in 1947 and began busking on streets with his guitar. Two years later, he made his first recording and played the blues on records and on tour well into his 80s. In the 1960s, white British rock artists, such as Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones, popularized old, authentic, American blues recordings and artists, and B.B. King was one of the biggest recipients of that increased interest. Here's his 1969 recording of his signature tune "The Thrill Is Gone."


B.B. KING: (Singing) The thrill is gone. The thrill is gone away. The thrill is gone, baby. The thrill is gone away. You know you done me wrong, baby, and you'll be sorry someday. The thrill is gone. It's gone away from me. The thrill is gone, baby. The thrill has gone away from me. Although, I'll still live on, but so lonely I'll be. The thrill is gone.

BIANCULLI: B.B. King spoke with Terry Gross in 1996, and she asked him about his first guitar.


KING: It had a hole in the center, and it was made by a company called Stella. And it was red.


Did you think that was cool or silly? (Laughter).

KING: No, I thought this was the greatest thing that ever happened to be. A guitar makes a sound. You pluck the strings. Man, how much more Heaven can you have? (Laughter). That's the way it seemed to me at the time. Believe it or not, I still hear the sound of that sound, if you will, through the guitar that I play today.

GROSS: You hear the sound of that very first red guitar?

KING: Yes, I do.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now, I love the way you describe developing your style. It sounds like you developed your style by trying and failing to imitate your influences - people like Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, your cousin Buckle White, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian.

KING: Charlie Christian, yes. I'm still doing that.

GROSS: Still trying and failing?

KING: (Laughter)Yeah, trying and failing, yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now you also left Hawaiian guitar. How did you hear Hawaiian guitar, and how did it - why was it so exciting to you - it was another sound you tried to emulate?

KING: Well, I'd hear it on the radio. I would hear the Hawaiian sound or the country music players played steel and slide guitars, if you will. And I hear that - to me, a steel guitar is one of the sweetest sounds this side of Heaven. I still like it. And that was one of the things that I tried to do so much was to imitate that - that sound. I could never get it. I still haven't been able to do it, and that was the beginning of the trill on my hand.

GROSS: Tell me more about the trill on your hand.

KING: Well, it's - how can I tell you? It's sort of like - it's not really pushing and pulling the strings like a lot of guitar players think I do. But it's like kind of just shaking hands and getting a vibration on the string a little bit. So maybe a mini bit of pushing and pulling, but not from the strength of my hands. It's just from the shaking of it.

GROSS: Now, also, you play a kind of single-line guitar as opposed to, you know, chords or rhythm guitar. Tell me, also, about developing that style of single note.

KING: Well, every time I've worked in a band, I was always featured. They'd hardly let me play in the rhythm section. Usually, for some reason, most of the players would always say B., take the solo, take the lead. And I got in the habit of doing that. So I put more emphasis on the single string than I did the chords. I can play a few chords, but I'm no great chord player.


KING: But, for example, if you were singing or playing, I could play chords pretty well behind you with a guideline. The guideline meaning if I had a bass player or keyboard player, somebody that's playing the D chords, I could play then. I could play behind you very well. But other than that, I'm sad. Anybody hear me play by myself, I've just lost that that person, you know, they won't listen to me anymore. That's the end (laughter).

GROSS: So did you feel that your strength lay not in just being a guitar player or in just being a singer, but in doing both together?

KING: I think both together. I started to feel that I had to be a good entertainer to keep a job. And I'm kind of happy that I developed in my head that I'm never any better than my last concert or my last time I played. So it's like an audition each time. Quite often, it's quite a bit like some say when you're going go on the stage, you have stage fright. In so many words, you get nervous just before going on stage. And I still have that, but I think it's more like it concern. You're concerned about other people. It's like meeting your in-laws for the first time.


KING: (Singing) When I first got the blues, they brought me over on a ship. Men were standing over me and a lot more with a whip. And everybody want to know why I sing the blues. Well, I've been around a long time. Mm, I've really paid my dues.

I've laid in the ghetto flats, cold and numb. I heard the rats tell the bedbugs to give the roaches some. Everybody want to know why I'm singing the blues. Yes, I've been around a long time. People, I've paid my dues.

I stood in line down at the County Hall. I heard a man say we're gonna build some new apartments for y'all. And everybody want to know - yes, they want to know why I'm singing the blues. Yes, I've been around a long, long time. Yes, I really, really paid my dues. Now, I'm going to play Lucille.

My kid's gonna grow up, gonna grow up to be a fool 'cause they ain't got no more room - no more room for him in school. And everybody want to know - everybody want to know why I'm singing the blues. I say I've been around a long time. Yes, I've really paid some dues. Yeah, you know the company told me...

GROSS: You're from a family of sharecroppers. What was the work that you had to do?

KING: Well, I was a regular hand when I was about seven. I chopped cotton. I picked cotton. I helped to plant it. I did everything that the grown-ups do. And that's mostly - the work had to do with - cotton was the king, if you will, of the produce in the Mississippi Delta when I was growing up; peanuts, maybe later, and soybeans later. But cotton still is today one of the main produces that's raised in the Mississippi Delta.

GROSS: What was the financial arrangement between your family and the plantation owner?

KING: Well, a sharecropper was meant to be exactly what they say - share cropper. But generally, the boss that owned the plantation did all of the paperwork, if you will. He was the CPA. He sold the produce that you raised. For example, a family of maybe five or six would have maybe a hundred acres to work, and maybe they would make 20, 25 bales of cotton. And it was all dealt with through the plantation owner.

And at the end of the year, say late December before Christmas, maybe two weeks or so, that's when we'd do what they call the settlement. And this is all done through the trust of the plantation owner. Other words, the sharecropper had nothing to do with it except what was told to him that had to do with his earnings. For example, Jim, you earned, after paying me back the advances I gave you, you made 25 bales of cotton, and the cotton broths maybe $5,000 a bail. And you owed me say 25 times that, except maybe $2,000. So here's your $1,800 (laughter).

GROSS: You know what I'm wondering? When you were growing up on a plantation, family of sharecroppers, did you vow to yourself early on I'm getting out of here?

KING: Well, not really. Believe it or not, people lived on the plantation felt like that this was really home, most of them. And we're being taken care of because the boss of the plantation usually was like your lawyer, your judge, your father, your mom. He was your, practically, everything. And people lived on plantations sort of felt, believe it or not, secure to be there. They needed a few bucks, usually they could get this from the boss man, and it's taken out at the end of the year.

At that time, we didn't have telephones. We didn't have electricity or anything of that sort. Later on, I guess we had electricity maybe a year or so before I left when I was 18 years old. And this was all taken care of through a system that you would pay at the end of the year, which came out of your earnings. So a lot of the people, including myself - the early years, just thought that this was it, you know. This - you raise your families, and you get old, die; your families take over - kids and what have you. It's an ongoing process, if you will. But I somehow later start to feel that there was more for me and a few others. I think it's the same way with young people today. They feel that they're not really happy with the status quo.

GROSS: Right.

KING: If that makes sense.

GROSS: Right.

BIANCULLI: B.B. King speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with legendary blues artist B.B. King. He died last night at age 89.

GROSS: You are - you know, you grew up on a plantation, then left it to go to Memphis, which is where you started really playing music professionally. It's a great story how you left the plantation. You were driving a tractor.

KING: (Laughter).

GROSS: This was a problematic tractor that had - it had problems with after ignition. So one day you turned off the tractor, walked out of the tractor and then the tractor started jumping on its own, rammed into the barn. The exhaust pipe got crushed or, you know, broke off.

KING: Broke off, yes.

GROSS: And you were afraid of how much money you'd owe the plantation owner.

KING: No, I was afraid that I would be killed (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, even worse.


KING: Well, he'd never kill anybody, but (laughter) I don't mean it that way, but scared to death. You know, like if your mom cooked a cake and you decided that, you know, you were going to get a piece of it and you drop it, you know, and it spills on the floor, a brand-new cake that's made for the family. You would feel that mom is going to surely kill you, so better get out of there. Well, that's the way I felt at the time that that tractor - when it backfired, you know, ran out into there. It scared me half to death, so I panicked and left - left and hitchhiked to Memphis. Going from Indianola to Memphis then was like oh, to me, like leaving Chicago going to Philly. It was that far - that's the way it seemed at the time. So I was scared to death. I left and stayed for a while and communicated back with my family. And my cousin Booker White said go on back there and take your lesson - take your medicine. So I finally went back, and Mr. Barrett, who was a very nice guy, a man that I admired so much, I wished I could be a lot more like him.

GROSS: You know, the good thing is, too, is this - that accident forced you to leave the plantation. Maybe you wouldn't have left it wasn't for that...

KING: No, no, no, I had planned to leave.

GROSS: You did?

KING: Yes. I had planned to leave. I had worked with a group called St. John Gospel Singers, and I thought we were very good. And believe it or not, I thought we were getting close to being like the Soul Stirrers, you know, with the...

GROSS: Sam Cooke's group, yeah...

KING: Sam Cooke, you got it. The Golden Gate Quartet, that was - the Pilgrim Travelers and many other quartets that we admired and wanted to be like them. And I thought we were, you know, kind of good opening act for some of them. And I'd wanted to leave two, three years before that. However, I had asked the guys a couple of years before to leave - you now, let's go. I believe we're ready. And each time, the crops would be bad or something like that and somebody would have an excuse and say well, we didn't do so well this year. Let's try it again next year. And I was about fed up with hearing that and was about ready to go anyway.

GROSS: What was Memphis like when you got there? What impressed you the most?

KING: It was like - oh, let's say you lived in Cairo (ph), Ill., and you moved to Chicago. Wow.


KING: That's what Memphis was like. Wow, great, big city. I'd never been in a city that large before.

GROSS: And did you feel like hey, this city is mine, or did you feel like I don't belong here?

KING: No, I felt that it was a place of learning because I was lucky and my cousin Booker White lived there and I had a chance to meet a lot of people when I came to Memphis. And I would go down on Beale Street and hear all these fine musicians playing, especially on the weekends. Memphis was sort of like, again, Chicago or any of the major metropolitan areas. People were coming through, going East or West - other words, it was sort of like a meeting place, if you will, a port for people traveling from different places. So I had a chance to meet a lot of great giants in the business - jazz and otherwise. So I felt it was something - or a place rather that I can learn.

GROSS: Bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson had a radio show when you got the Memphis called King Biscuit Time. And you went up to him and asked to sing on the program. That seems to me like a - you must have had the courage to just come in like that.

KING: Well, before I left Indianola, my hometown, Indianola, Miss., I used to hear Sonny Boy over in Helena, Ark. He would come on the air each day at 12:15 and - for about 15 minutes for the King Biscuit company. And I felt that - that I knew him. It's sort of like watching TV or listening to you. A person listen to you and feel that they can trust you and feel that they really know you. You become like a name in the family, so that's the way I felt when I met him. I didn't know him, but it seemed to me I had known him all this time. So when I got to Memphis, he was in West Memphis, which is across the Mississippi River in Arkansas. I went over, and I felt - I guess I would've been hurt very badly if he had not talked with me.

GROSS: He let you sing on his show?

KING: Yes, he did. I guess he said a guy got this much nerve and I'm very homely looking...

GROSS: What'd you sing?

KING: I sang one of Ivory Joe Hunter's songs. Ivory Joe Hunter, if you're not familiar with him, was a - a great songwriter and great musician. He made a lot of tunes. One - one or two that you've probably heard. Anyway, I sang one of his tunes called "Blues At Sunrise."

GROSS: And you got a response?

KING: Very much so, Sonny Boy seemed to like it. And Sonny Boy was a very big guy, you know, and his eyes were not very clear, looked a little red like. And he was a very big fella. And at that time, I weigh about 127, and he - he stood about, oh, 6 - 6 feet or more. And looking down on me, you know, like hey, you better sing right. And I said yes sir.


BIANCULLI: Blues artist B.B. King, speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. He died last night at the age of 89 after spending most of the month in hospice care at his home. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. And film critic David Edelstein will review the new "Mad Max" installment - "Mad Max: Fury Road." I David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.


KING: (Singing) Sometimes I wonder just what am I fighting for? I win some battles, but I always lose the war...


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 1996 interview with legendary blues artist B.B. King. After spending weeks in hospice care at his home, he died last night. He was 89 years old. When we left off, they were talking about B.B. King's move to Memphis.


GROSS: Well, you ended up getting your own radio show as well as your own gigs in Memphis. When you were on the radio, one of the things you had to do was sing - well, write and then sing - a jingle for Pepticon, which was, what - a kind of cure-all remedy?

KING: Yes. Pepticon was a tonic that was supposed to be good for whatever ails you. And we sold a lot of it. And I think a lot of it had to do - I didn't learn until much later that it was 12 percent alcohol, so a lot of the older people bought it. And especially the church people, (laughter), they bought a lot of it.

GROSS: The only way to drink and be legit. (Laughter).

KING: Well, I won't say that, but I do know that they bought it.

GROSS: Would you sing the jingle you wrote?

KING: Well, (laughter) do you really want me to do this? (Laughter). You really do? OK.

(Singing) Pepticon sure is good. Pepticon sure is good. Pepticon sure is good. You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood.

GROSS: Did that sell a lot of Pepticon?

KING: We sold a lot of it. I used to ride the trucks on the weekend with the salesmen, and people would stand in line something like going to a concert or a movie.

GROSS: Now, I want to get to another record, recorded in 1952. You were 26. This is a recording of "Three O'Clock Blues." It had been a hit a few years before for Lowell Fulsom.

KING: Right.

GROSS: This was your first number-one record on the R-and-B charts.

KING: Very first.

GROSS: You're coming into your own here, don't you think? As a stylist?

KING: I'm a very happy guy. I don't know that somebody told me that I have a hit record. I'm very happy to hear that (laughter). I think that's music to each performer's ear, to hear that they have a top-selling record or CD.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it.


KING: (Singing) It is 3 o'clock in the morning, can't even close my eyes. Oh, 3 o'clock in the morning, baby. Can't even close my eyes. Well, I can't find my baby, no, and I can't be satisfied.

GROSS: That's B.B. King, recorded in 1952.

How did that record - your first record went to number-one on the R-and-B charts - change your life?

KING: Well, it changed my life in many ways. One thing, financially because I had been making about $60 a week at this radio station, and I would go out and pick cotton, I would drive trucks and tractors. I did everything to try to make ends meet, if you will, 'cause my music wasn't taking care of me. And when I made "Three O'Clock Blues," I started then to get guarantees maybe, like, 4 or $500 a day when I played out. And that made a big difference rather as far as financially speaking 'cause then I could hire more people to work with me - made life easier. I could get a driver to keep from having to drive all the different places by myself. And my wife and I was able to live better, able to pay the band better. I was able to do many things that I hadn't been able to do prior to that. And of course, my popularity was much - much more popular, if you will. And I just started to feel then that I was a real entertainer.

GROSS: In the 1950s, you toured on a black music circuit. And you weren't crossing over, even into the early '60s, to white audiences the way other African-American performers who were playing more rock 'n' roll had started to do - Chuck Berry, Little Richard. Did you want to cross over? Were you frustrated that you weren't crossing over?

KING: Well, in the beginning, I was really confused about the way the politics ran in music. I always thought if you made a good record, it was a good record. If it was a hit record, it was a hit record. And people - not black, not white, red or yellow - but people, would like it. Some people would like it. But I learned quickly after I got into the music business that there are so many categories and you can get lost. You're like a little fish in a big pond. And more so if you're a blues singer, a blues musician. So I was not really wanting to be a crossover, actually, but I wanted all people to hear it and like it. I was hoping rather they would like it. And people like Ray Charles, people like Chuck Berry - all these guys to me were very talented and they was very energetic - Lloyd Price and so on. All of them was very energetic when it come to playing music. They didn't play the slow, droopy drawers music like I did, so...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KING: ...I found that maybe that was my reason because they had things that I didn't have, musically or entertaining.

GROSS: Well, they were playing to teenage audiences and as you've always pointed out, your audience...

KING: Was always my age and older.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, so could you imagine yourself crossing over to teenagers, playing to teenagers?

KING: No. No, I could not. And again, I'm trying to say that to hear the people that I mentioned playing, I was never envious of them because me, I'm the country boy that left the country but they never got the country out of me. So I didn't have that, oh, stage presence that they have. So I was never envious of them being able to get over, but I was - hoped that people would sometime pay more attention to what I was doing.

GROSS: In the mid '60s, I guess it was, a lot of the rock guitarists started emulating you. I mean, you became a god to some of them, like Bloomfield, Eric Clapton. And that helped introduce your music to college audiences and then you started playing the college circuit in addition to the places you'd already been playing. What was it like for you to start playing the college circuit? Did you feel like - did it feel very different to you? Did you feel like you needed to change anything about your performance style? Was there anything you were doing that didn't seem to translate?

KING: Yes. I was frightened at first. Here I am, a high school dropout and I'm going to be playing to college audiences. Yes, I felt that I should wear a hard hat and be Fred Astaire or Nat Cole.

GROSS: (Laughter). Be real suave?

KING: Yeah. But I remember after "Three O'Clock Blues," I had a manager and he told me when I was going - it used to be a saying that for a black performer, it was three theaters - four, rather - four theaters you had to play and be accepted before you would be accepted as a true entertainer. One of those theaters was the Howard Theatre in Washington, the Royal Theatre in Baltimore and the master itself was the Apollo Theater in New York, in Harlem. So my manager told me then - I lived in Memphis - he said, don't go to New York and these other places. Oh, and by the way, the fourth theater was the Regal Theater here in Chicago. However, my manager said, do not go to New York trying to be Nat Cole or anybody else that's trying to be slick because there are people that's sweeping the floors that are much better than you'll ever be...


KING: ...So the best thing for you to do is go there and be B.B. King.

GROSS: What good advice.

KING: Sing "Three O'Clock Blues," sing this song that you sing, the way you sing them. He said, now, all these other people can do all of those other things, but they can't be you as you can be you. And that I've tried to keep from then until now.

BIANCULLI: B.B. King, speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with legendary blues artist B.B. King. He died last night at age 89.


GROSS: It's been said that you've always felt bad that you dropped out of school, never went to college. Were you self-conscious about that when you were actually playing colleges?

KING: Yes, very much so. I thought that my shortcoming, as far as education was concerned, would make me not be, shall we say, good enough to play for a lot of those people.

GROSS: But it was probably just the opposite, that your audience really wanted to be you.

KING: Well, I don't know about that, but they did show me that they appreciated me being there. They still do that. They showed me that they was really with me and supported me in what I was doing. So they gave me confidence.

GROSS: Now, I got a question about your autobiography.

KING: Uh-oh.

GROSS: (Laughter). The autobiography, which is co-written with David Ritz...

KING: Right.

GROSS: It goes into some of your sexual life. And...

KING: I love women - still do. At 71, I still love them.

GROSS: Here's my question, though.

KING: (Laughter).

GROSS: Did you have any intention of getting that, well, explicit about your life as it ended up getting? Did he have to really push you to do that, or were you comfortable with that?

KING: No, he didn't have to push me. When we agreed to do the book, I had said to David and some of my close associates that I would be as candid as possible. So someday after I'm dead, people are going to say, yes, B.B. King has 15 kids by 15 different women. So I might as well to - get the heat now. It's all right. At least it's now in the open.

But I must say, and I'll say to you, if had a chance to explain, I think a lot of people would understand it much better than I can say to you at this moment. But this was not love children. This was not something that just happened overnight. By the way, I've lived now 71 years, so this took a time to happen. And if I had my life to live over again, at this time, knowing what I know now, would've done a lot of the things differently.

But the ways of prevention at that time was not as easy as it is today. A lot of the people during my time coming up have big families. And the only way to prevent having a lot of children a lot of times had to do with doing things that a lot of men, especially this man, don't enjoy doing to prevent it (laughter). So there I am (laughter).


KING: I hope I've made a little sense.

GROSS: So you're comfortable with the sexual material in the book?

KING: I love my children. I don't say this to brag that I have 15 kids by 15 different women, but since it has happened, I'm crazy about them. They all are doing well. Only two or three has been in trouble. And we've been in touch constantly since their early life 'till present time. I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I'm proud of all of them. Some of them went to school like I wanted them to do.

I wasn't a very good father because I was away most of the time, but I was in touch. And most of them - their moms are still living, and we are in touch. Anytime that it's something they needed, they've always been able to get in touch - with their moms, that is. And they've lived their lives, and I've lived mine. It wasn't that - usually something happened, but it was never something so bad until it was what we call a knock-down, drag-out. We've always stayed in touch. And all the moms are living except three.

GROSS: I have met, over the years, a lot of people who've worked with you or toured with you, and it's just not possible, I think, to get anybody to say a bad word about you. I mean, your reputation is of somebody who treats everybody around him really well, with a lot of respect, always fair, financially and in all other ways as well. And I'm just wondering if that's something that you consciously set out to do. If there - I'm not just trying to be nice here. I mean, I think it's just (laughter) it's just kind of a fact that you're known for this. And I wonder if you think of yourself just naturally Mr. Nice Guy or if it's something that you've felt really obliged to do and have been very conscious about doing.

KING: There are some things that I've read that I truly believe in. I believe that one should treat others as they want to be treated. And that's one of the things that I try to live by, if you will, is trying to be fair to people as I want them to be to me.

GROSS: One of your recordings that I particularly love happens to be a recording with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.


GROSS: Your recording of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

KING: Right.

GROSS: I mean, gee, you don't even play guitar on this. It's so strange. It's such a unusual recording. How'd it feel to sing with the Ellington Orchestra and...

KING: Frightening.

GROSS: ...Yeah - and not have a guitar? I mean, I don't think you play in that.

KING: Well, I was afraid to try to sing, and trying to play guitar would've been just too much. But today, I'm more familiar with a lot of the standard tunes, and I would like to try and play the melodies instead of singing them.

GROSS: B.B. King, it's really been such a delight to talk with you. Thank you very, very much for your time. Thank you for being here.

KING: Thank you. You're very kind to talk with. I enjoy your voice.


KING: (Singing) Missed the Saturday dance. I heard they crowded the floor. It's awfully different without you. Don't get around much anymore. I thought I'd visit the club. Got as far as the door. I just couldn't bear it without you. I don't get around much anymore. Darling, I guess my mind is more at ease. But, nevertheless, why stir up memories? Been invited on dates. I might've gone, but what for? I just couldn't bear it without you. I don't get around much anymore.

BIANCULLI: That's B.B. King with the Duke Ellington Band. He spoke with Terry Gross in 1996. After spending weeks in hospice care at his home, he died last night at the age of 89. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Mad Max: Fury Road." This is FRESH AIR.

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