When he’s onstage singing the blues, B. B. King will often take his hands off his guitar and repeatedly slam his right fist into the open palm of his left hand, in the manner of an old-time gospel preacher. He does this to drive home some particularly poignant or pointed lyrical line. It’s one of his trademark stage gestures.
The other one is this: He’ll crisscross his hands at his heart, thumbs intertwined, his eight remaining fingers fluttering in the manner of a bird’s wings. He usually plays this move for laughs–to impart an ironic undercurrent to some cutely romantic lyric line. But this gesture is actually just as gospel as the Bible-pounding fist–a sign of the Pentecostal dove, Christian believers’ heart connection with their savior.
It’s an odd thing to encounter onstage at a smoky Vegas lounge or roadside gin mill. But that juxtaposition of the earthy and the sanctified–showbiz glitz with the deepest depths of the soul–lies at the core of the life and music of the man born Riley B. King. He started out as a member of the Famous St. John Gospel Singers out of rural Indianola, Miss. And he never completely lost touch with those church roots–not even once he’d made his way to the bright lights and wicked ways of Memphis, reinventing himself as the Beale Street Blues Boy, or just B. B. for short.
King was a major R&B star of the ’50s and went on to play a key role in bringing the blues out of chitlin-circuit blues joints and into rock ‘n’ roll concert halls during the pivotal years of the ’60s. He was a key influence on blues guitar icons like Michael Bloomfield and Eric Clapton, not to mention just about anyone who’s ever picked up an axe and assayed the 12-bar idiom. He has become the blues’ goodwill ambassador to the world, treasured by the music’s aficionados, but also loved by those who know absolutely nothing about the blues. Heck, most people are even on a first-name basis with B. B.’s signature Gibson guitar, Lucille.
Last year B. B. King celebrated his 80th birthday with the release of B. B. King and Friends: 80, an album of duets that pairs the legendary bluesman with greats like Clapton, Elton John, Mark Knopfler, Roger Daltrey, John Mayer and Sheryl Crow. Bullfinch Press brought out a lavish coffee-table book, The B. B. King Treasures, and Gibson issued a special commemorative edition of the Lucille guitar. Despite the challenges of diabetes and assorted other maladies of advanced age, B. B. King still maintains a full touring schedule. The road has been his home for more than half a century, and, come Friday, May 26, it brings him to the Sonoma Jazz + festival.
Bohemian: Was the B. B. King and Friends album inspired by your guest appearance with Ray Charles on his Genius Loves Company, not long before Ray passed?
B. B. King: No, not really. And I’m hoping the outcome ain’t the same! I told the record company, ‘Ray did that just before he died. But I ain’t ready to go yet. So don’t put all these people on my album expecting me to leave tomorrow.’ But I’ll tell you this, we had fun doing it.
Although you started out as a gospel singer, you made your recording debut as a blues singer, with “Miss Martha King” in 1949.
That was my very first session. I did four sides for Bullet Records. Funny thing was, I started recording for them, and about six or eight months after that they went bankrupt.
But those early sides definitely introduced your sound to the record-buying public.
That’s right. Let me explain how I got the guitar and amp on that record. One night, I was coming out of Tennessee in my old Mercury coupe. When I say “coupe,” that means it was supposed to hold five people. I must have had eight or 10 in there. Musicians had a hard way to go back then, tryin’ to get transportation. And I’ll never forget how a transport truck–one of those big gas trucks–run into the back of me when I slowed down to cross a bridge. The driver said he wasn’t payin’ much attention. So the insurance money is what bought that guitar for me. First Gibson guitar I ever had. First amp I ever had.
What we think of as the signature B. B. King vocal and guitar style really starts to emerge on “Three O’Clock Blues” from 1951, which was your first No. 1 record and one of many classics you cut for Modern Records and its subsidiary labels.
At that time, they called me a rhythm and blues singer. Wasn’t till much later they started calling my music blues. Guess I must’ve lost the rhythm somewhere! And back then, there were only two or three small labels that was releasin’ R&B. There was Don Robey [proprietor of the Peacock and Duke labels] out of Houston, the Chess brothers [Leonard and Phil] in Chicago and the Bihari brothers [Lester, Jules and Joe] who ran Modern Records out of Los Angeles. If a company like that could sell 100,000 records, man, that was a good thing going. And I did that many times. “Three O’ Clock Blues” was the first one.
Another landmark recording of yours is the Live at the Regal album from your years at ABC Records. Many consider this the greatest B. B. King record of all time. What was so magical about that November afternoon in 1964 at Chicago’s Regal Theatre?
To be honest, I don’t know what happened! The crowd was all hyper like that as soon as we started playing. There was no “applause” signs or anything like that. Me and the band just went on and did what we always do. We just had the right crowd at the right time. They have voted that that was one of the 10 best recorded live albums. I won’t dispute that. But then they say it’s my best. And as long as they’re positive, I won’t dispute that. But if you ask me personally, I’d say no, I don’t think it’s the best. I think it’s pretty good.
I made almost 90 LPs and CDs. But I don’t think I ever made a perfect one. But I do think in each one of them, there’s some good work. I don’t like to rehearse too much, where you milk something to death so it loses what made it good in the first place. I want a good sound, a strong sound–not a perfect sound. And when I play “The Thrill Is Gone” tonight, I’m not gonna try to play it like I’m recording it in ’69. I wanna play it like I’m playing it today. Right now.
It’s great that “The Thrill Is Gone” is still in your repertoire. It’s the one B. B. King song that everyone knows–probably your greatest hit.
“The Thrill Is Gone” is a  song by [California bluesman] Roy Hawkins that I rewrote and carried around for three or four years, or maybe even longer. Any time I would try to record it, I could never get what I wanted. But then one night in New York, about 2:30 or a quarter to 3 in the morning, I had [drummer] Herbie Lovelle and [pianist] Paul Harris together with Hugh McCracken on [rhythm] guitar and Gerald Jemmott on bass. And we just hit it. I said, “Yeah, this is it.” They were just four people that fitted me. I never played like that again.
And after the session, producer Bill Szymczyk decided to add that famous string section.
That’s right. I was living in New York at the time. So after that session, I went home to bed. And at about 5:30, 6 o’clock in the morning, Bill calls me. We’d only stopped recording close to 4 or so. And now here’s Bill on the phone, all excited. “B,” he says, “‘The Thrill is Gone’ is good!” See, he didn’t like it at first, but then he got a chance to listen to it by himself. He said, “What would you think if I put strings on it?” I told him, “Go ahead.” He was telling me, with the strings, it may go pop. So they got Bert DeCoteaux to do the string arrangement, which I caught hell for, incidentally. People said it wasn’t the blues.
Everybody says that’s the first time I had strings on a tune. But that’s not right. “My Heart Belongs Only to You” had strings. There were quite a few things that Maxwell Davis, who was my arranger at Modern Records, put strings on.
By the late ’60s, you’d broken through to a new audience. Young white listeners were getting turned on to the blues. What was it like the first time you played the Fillmore West in 1967?
When we first pulled up, I thought we’d come to the wrong place! I’d never played for a bunch of longhaired white kids before. I said to Bill Graham, “I gotta have something to drink.” Bill looked at me strange and said, “We don’t sell liquor here.” I said, “I don’t care. I want me a drink!” So he sent out and got a small bottle of some kind of liquor. I don’t remember what. He sat me down in the dressing room and said, “B, when it’s time to go on, I’ll come back and get you.” I was still very nervous. There was no tables or chairs in there, which I’d never seen before in a place where I played. People in there, they sittin’ on the floor or standin’. They was body to body. I couldn’t understand that. I had never ever seen people together like that before. They was really . . . I think serene is a good word.
So finally Bill Graham did come back to get me. Walking behind him to the stage, I had to watch not to step on anyone. People was sittin’ everywhere, just talkin’ quietly among themselves. When I got to the stage, Bill gave me the best, and shortest, introduction I ever had. “Ladies and gentlemen . . .”
He said that and everybody got so quiet you could hear a pin drop. He say, “I bring you the chairman of the board, B. B. King.” And they all stood up and applauded. And I cried. ‘Cause it was very emotional to me. I ain’t never had this happen before in my life. If there’s any such thing as a crossover, that was the night it happened.
B. B. King celebrates his 80th birthday at the Sonoma Jazz + festival on Friday, May 26, at 9pm. Diannne Reeves opens at 6pm. Other headliners include Steve Miller with John Handy on Thursday, May 25; Natalie Cole on Saturday, May 26, and Rickie Lee Jones and Herbie Hancock on Sunday, May 28. Field of Dreams, two blocks off Sonoma Plaza, Sonoma. General admission is $45-$95; other packages available. 866.468.8355.