BB King

by David Sheff

Under the willow trees, the big man shifts in his lawn chair and takes a sip of mineral water. The desert breeze is hot, and he unbuttons his sports shirt, exposing an ample belly. A busload of rubbernecking tourists slows in front of the house, and the occupants wave and yell: “Hey, B.B.!” He waves back. “I’m on the Vegas celebrity tour,” he explains, refilling his glass. A newspaper delivery boy approaches hesitantly and hands him his paper. “Aren’t you…ahh…somebody?” B.B. King flashes a megawatt smile. “Yeah,” he laughs, “I guess I’m somebody.”

At 54, B.B. King is almost the last practitioner of a rare art form: He sings and plays the blues. In 30 years of performing, he has recorded some 300 songs and at least 60 albums. In 1970 his The Thrill Is Gone went gold and his recent LPs have sold a respectable 300,000 copies. Take It Home, his latest, is doing even better. “No 10 million sellers like them superstars,” King admits. Yet it is the superstars—rock giants like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Mick Jagger—who admire B.B. most and acknowledge his influence on their styles. Says blues rocker Michael Bloomfield: “If it was not for B.B. King, there would be no Clapton, no Harrison, no Beck. There’d be no lead guitar, no rock’n’roll as we know it. There would be no me. Man, he’s my scoutmaster, my guru. I want to know he’ll always be around.”

B.B. is aware of the respect. “Them white players look at me affectionately,” he says. “They look after me, like they’s my kids. Once, when I was going to London, Clapton, all on his own, came out in the newspapers saying, ‘B.B. King is coming. Go and see him.’ ”

In terms of prizes, King has collected just about everything available: a Grammy (for Thrill), two gold records (Thrill and Together for the First Time), an honorary doctorate in music from Yale and top blues awards from Guitar Player, Down Beat and Ebony. Trophies, medals and plaques crowd the shelves and wall space in the living room of his $250,000 Vegas ranch house, but King takes an aw-shucks attitude. “I’m only a guy who went to school through the tenth grade and is always trying to better himself,” he says. “I don’t do much—I just sing. Being a blues singer hasn’t been the most popular thing around. Talk about a minority!”

His fans might be hard to convince. Wherever King goes—and he is constantly on the move, playing six nights a week year round—he consistently draws large and remarkably loyal audiences. Most of them have been his admirers for decades and don’t care whether his last record was a best-seller or not. “Promoters can book me and know a certain amount of people are going to come,” he acknowledges. Last March he took the blues to the Soviet Union, and 100,000 people turned out to hear him. “There aren’t too many American records in stores there,” B.B. says, “but many, many people brought up my albums for me to sign. I’m an underground product. The Russians didn’t know most of my tunes, but they knew my name. They called me ‘The Father of Jazz.’ ”

On the road, B.B. is cosseted by a small, devoted staff and his 10-piece band. His valet and road manager, Willis Edwards Jr., known as Bebop, has taken care of all his personal affairs since 1951 (” ‘Cept I let him pick out his own ladies”). He even buys King’s clothes. “B.B. hasn’t known the price of a necktie for 30 years,” Bebop says. “I know when B.B.’s happy, sad, sick or has to go to the bathroom.”

Onstage, King looks more like an alderman than a musician, impeccably attired in a three-piece suit, with his gleaming black electric Gibson guitar beside him. He knows that his image is anachronistic, but claims that in 1979 it is necessary: “Some folks think that if you’re a blues singer, you’ve got to be a guy sitting on a stool looking north, with a cap on your head facing south, a cigarette barely hanging in your mouth to the east, and a jug of whiskey sitting next to you on the west. Your guitar has to be old and beat-up. If you play the bass it has to be made of a broomstick and a washtub. But that wouldn’t work no more. If the blues were left to that, they’d have died. If you’re a blues performer, you’ve got to dress ’em up to sell. Some purists have gone against me, saying I’ve sold out. But I ain’t. I’m surviving.”

While performing, King is a study in intensity, his eyes always tight shut as he sings. “In the old days I couldn’t see what they was throwing at me,” he jokes. “Concentrating on the music so strongly cured my stutter. I remembered the words and couldn’t hear the boos. Concentration keeps me out of the casinos too.” B.B. admits to a fondness for gambling, and sometimes meets with his friends Redd Foxx and Bill Cosby at the keno lounges of Vegas. “Redd does all the talking,” he says, “and we all do a lot of losing.”

King also likes to fly—he earned his pilot’s license in 1963—and, when he is home, to drive in his rose Cadillac through the Nevada desert with all the windows down. “It clears my head,” he explains. “I love the hot desert air blowin’ in on me.” Most of all, though, despite two failed marriages and uncounted affairs, B.B. likes “takin’ a lady out for a nice evening.” He comes from a tradition that exalts women, a theme his songs frequently touch on. “We was always taught that you should assist the lady. It shows you really care. If she don’t like it, that’s fine. If she wants to lift up the car and put on the tire, that’s also fine.”

But, for a man who has taken just three months off in more than three decades, there has never been much time for leisurely pleasures. He was born Riley B. King in Itta Bena, Miss., “the largest little town between Indianola and Greenwood.” His parents were poor farmhands, and when Riley was 4½ they separated. The boy lived with his mother, who died when he was 9, and then with his grandmother, who died a year later. For a time he lived alone in a shack on the property, “milking 10 cows a day, doing the chores and chopping cotton,” in exchange for his board and permission to go to school. In school he learned about three men who became his idols, Joe Louis, W.E.B. Du Bois and George Washington Carver. “Before my teacher told me about them, there wasn’t any blacks that I could look up to. I learned then that I wanted to be somebody. I didn’t know who, but somebody.”

King s introduction to music came through religion. “There were three churches in town,” he recalls. “The Baptist—they’d teach you till you didn’t want to be taught no more. The Methodist—they’d let you sing, but all they had was a piano or organ. And the Sanctified [the Church of God in Christ]—where you could come and play anything as long as it was gospel music.” His uncle was married to the sister of the Sanctified preacher, who came to her house for Sunday dinner after church. “The preacher would lay his guitar on the bed in the back room,” King remembers. “I was in there messing around with it one day when he caught me. I thought he would scold me, but instead he taught me three chords. And you know what, I’m still playin’ them.”

When he was 15 his mother’s family moved to a large plantation in Indianola. “They took me in. I chopped cotton, drove the tractor and drove the boss around for $22 a week.” During spring planting King worked 20 hours a day: “We slept from midnight to 4 a.m. and worked the rest—seven days a week.” At 18 he married Martha Lee Denton. “We were married for six years. The children from that marriage died very young. We were never lucky with children.” To buy his first guitar, King borrowed $15 from his boss. “I kept practicing with them three chords, and learned myself the blues.” On Saturdays during slack farming seasons, he began to play on Indianola street corners, making “twice the money I’d make all week on the plantation.”

In 1946 King left farming, his wife and the Mississippi Delta behind him. Hitchhiking to Memphis, with his guitar under his arm, he found a job in a factory, but soon moved on to something more to his liking—entertaining in a gambling joint, Miss Annie’s 16th Street Grill. “I played for the ladies while the fellows gambled,” he says. That led to a deejay job at WDIA, a new black radio station in Memphis. It was there he was dubbed “The Beale Street Blues Boy,” which his black audience quickly shortened to B.B. Soon he was working the “chitlins circuit” with a trio he established, performing in seedy clubs and Elks’ halls for $25 a night. He began making records, and in 1950 his first big hit, Three O’clock Blues, went to the top of the R&B charts.

But the blues were eclipsed in the early 1950s by rock’n’roll. B.B. had to hustle to make a living. In 1956 he played 342 one-night stands with “Lucille,” his constant companion. “We was playing a club in Twist, Ark.,” he says. “It was a cold night. In the center of the floor there was a big container with kerosene that was burning to keep us warm. Two guys started fighting—something about the cook, a woman named Lucille. Something about marrying. They fell over the fire, which spilled everywhere. Two men died in it. I got out, but I left my guitar inside. I couldn’t afford to lose that guitar, so I went back in and brought it out. I named the guitar Lucille, after the cook. Lucille’s been with me since.” (The current Lucille is the 15th incarnation of the original.)

B.B.’s fortunes began to improve as he caught the ear of white audiences. In 1958 he recorded Sweet Sixteen, which became the No. 1 R&B record in the nation. “I modified the blues to go along with the times.” The year before, he had married college student Sue Carol Hall in a Detroit ceremony performed by Aretha Franklin’s preacher father. B.B. and Sue were married nine years, and although they had no children, he says he has sired eight with other women. “My, was Sue beautiful,” King recalls, “but she tired of traveling. She said I should stay home and work, go to baseball games, church on Sunday, carry the children. I couldn’t see that at all. So she decided we should separate. I told her she could have the house—I knew she was gonna take it anyway. I said half of everything is yours, but she still got me for $35,000, which was all I had.”

In 1967 King and his band drove to San Francisco for a concert that proved to be a turning point. He didn’t realize it, but his reputation from records and his white superstar boosters had preceded him. “I come driving up to this club, the Fillmore, in my old ragged bus. I looked around: There was people everywhere, wall-to-wall people. They were all white! I said, ‘We’s in the wrong place.’ But when they introduced me, the audience stood up screaming. I hadn’t played a note. They was screaming for me, B.B. King. I cried up there. I realized the only way I could get out of that situation was to play. I played.”

“Startin’ to weary” these days, B.B. has begun to slow down. Next year he hopes to cut his touring schedule in half. “I don’t have to work as hard as I do,” he says. “But I couldn’t have stopped before, even for a short while, as some of my ladies pleaded with me to do. If I had, the blues would no longer be alive. I hope my kids will forgive me. I hope they will understand why I was never there.”