B.B. King, surrounded by friends and Chinese food, chuckles. He's reading a blues song written and delivered by Washington jazz guitarist Bill Harris, whom he's known since ancient days with the Clovers.
Ain't nobody like B.B. King
ain't nobody like B.B. King
Oh how good he makes you feel
when he starts singin' with his sweet Lucille
ain't nobody like B.B. King . . .
The solid-bodied Lucille is resting on the couch next to King, a bit unstrung. Her neck is elegantly long, her curves widening to an ample bottom. While King seems as relaxed as yesterday's news, Lucille frets a lot. Lucille and B.B. King have been together since 1949; she may be the best known . . . guitar . . . in contemporary music.
"I never expected to be a musician or a blues singer," King says. "I used to sing gospel and was pretty good at it until the girls showed up. The only difference between a gospel tune and a blues was usually the lyrics; they had the same feeling. When I went to church I was singing and thinking about heavenly bodies. With the blues I think in terms of earthly ones."
B.B. King, 57, is the major architect and most successful voice of post-World War II blues. A pair of weekend performances at Constitution Hall marked 35 years in the music business, in which King crossed over to wide pop acceptance without seriously diluting the heart of his style. The road from Indianola, Miss., has taken him many places, including the Soviet Union and Africa, yet King still seems surprised that the vehicle turned out to be the blues. His very first (and now extremely rare) records listed him as Riley B. King, Gospel Singer. "I'd like to have one, as a matter of fact," he says.
A number of factors combined to make King influential to succeeding generations of bluesmen.He was born in 1925 into the same Mississippi milieu as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker; being born a generation later placed King in the center of great cultural changes, including wider exposure to radio and records. Like those isolated blues figures, King's childhood revolved around farm labor; he proudly recalled once how he could pick 500 pounds of cotton a day--at 35 cents per hundred pounds. King grew up country-fast--his parents divorced at 4, his mother died when he was 9; he walked 10 miles to a one-room schoolhouse and worked on the farm from age 8.
Music was an afterthought, an energy that became focused through a teen-age aunt who brought home hit records of the day--Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker. "Oh boy, that was it," King says, hearing the old tunes in his mind. Another aunt was married to a sanctified preacher who played guitar. The elements started coming together.
In the Army, King started singing the blues and started hearing a lot of new sounds: the jazz guitar of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhart, the vocals of Jimmy Rushing, the ecstatic horn sections of Count Basie and T-Bone Walker. He started playing around Memphis, close to home but far enough away to not embarrass his family. Playing blues, to them, was like "being black twice," he once said.
Eventually, King landed a job as a deejay on Memphis radio, starting with a 10-minute show; soon he was up to a 2 1/2-hour slot, touted as "The Beale Street Blues Boy," the "Blues Boy" eventually shortening to B.B. As a deejay, King was further exposed to new sounds, which he incorporated into his music, moving away from the insular regional styles of older bluesmen still rooted, acoustically, in their past. King was always electric, always backed by a horn section ("the horns are like gospel singers in the background, I need that").
Finally, King started making hits instead of playing them. His fluid style was resonant with modern sounds, capturing the tempo of urban life for black Americans. He mixed traditional blues, jazz, swing, mainstream pop and jump into a unique sound. His single-string guitar runs reflected the width of his influences. "I'd listen to the sweet saxophone sound of Johnny Hodges and hear certain phrases that was bluesy to me, phrases I could tie in to Blind Lemon and Lonnie Johnson. I'd hear those long glisses of Django and associate them with the diminished chords of Charlie Christian. I'd bring all that together and I got blues."
Unlike most blues shouters, King's singing was richly melodic. And he really had two voices, his own and Lucille's. Like eloquent twins, they completed each other's thoughts, extended each other's ideas. It was a communion born of necessity, King confesses. "I can't think well enough to play and sing at the same time. When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing here he reaches for Lucille . I can accompany anyone else, but to try and do this for myself . . . I can't."
"This is actually my 15th Lucille," says King, cradling his new, custom-built guitar. "It started in 1949 when I played a place called Twist, Arkansas. We used to play every Friday and Saturday night, Sunday too if it rained; it was a plantation town and if it rained people didn't go to work the next day." Twist winters were cold and the wooden dance hall was heated only by a garbage pail filled with kerosene. "People would dance around it."
One night a fight started, the pail was knocked over and "it was like a river of fire. Everybody started running for the front door, including myself. When I got outside, I remembered I'd run off and left my guitar." King plunged back in and managed to jump out of the building just as it collapsed. "The next morning, they found the two men inside that had started the fight over a lady. I never did meet her but I found her name was Lucille and I named my guitar Lucille to remind me never to do a thing like that again. I usually say you can get another guitar, but not another B.B. King."