I woke up on the bus this morning and my wife, Susan [Tedeschi], was playing B.B. King records up front. I looked up and we were passing the Indianola, Mississippi exit, driving to Jackson, and it was kind of too much to take. I had to put sunglasses on and just sit there and take it in. It definitely hit home harder than expected. We got into our hotel and the lady behind the desk, said, “He stayed here twice a year.” I feel like I’m kind of walking the trail today.
When B.B. King played, it was just the cold hard truth [laughs] – like hearing Martin Luther King speak. You just needed one word, one note with B.B. No one has that. No one lived the life he lived. None of the quote-unquote “torchbearers” have that history, that spirit. There’s a bunch of people out here that are going to carry on the memory of it, but he did it. My good friend Col. Bruce Hampton said, “B.B. ain’t coming back. He got it right this time.” A lot of people might have to keep coming back to work it out, but B.B. did it. He ain’t coming back. He did what he was supposed to do. He left an amazing legacy and a bunch of disciples.
It felt like as long as he was here, everything was OK. There’s no John Coltrane, Ray Charles is gone, but B.B.’s still here. Everyone knew he was sick and the last few times we saw him, we knew he was getting to the end of the road. But it kind of feels like you lost your other father. He was all of our dads. Every guitar player I know, going back to Eric [Clapton] or Dickey [Betts] or any of the guys I looked up to, it’s the same reverence from them to B.B. We’re all his kids.
He was always a sweetheart. He always treated you like a long lost friend. It was pure grace with him. There was really nobody like him. I had the chance to get onstage with him at the Royal Albert Hall in London and later in L.A. That connection – playing straight B.B. King licks and having him answer them back – those are special, peak moments. I felt his vote of confidence. When you play something and see B.B. grin, it’s just like “this is the right path.” That’s something I’m grateful for.
He was unbelievably gracious to my family. I remember my son Charlie was probably six or eight months old and we were on B.B.’s bus and Charlie grabbed a lapel and B.B. takes it off and gives it to him. And then he pulls out a hundred dollar bill, a crisp one, and gives it to Charlie. We framed that thing up. He just had that spirit. He was here to give, and he gave a lot. I know towards the end, people were complaining about some of the shows and my thought was always, “You’re lucky to be in a room with this man. Pay your respect.” I’d pay to see him ’til the last second just to be around him. It was nice that in the last 10, 20 years, he really did get his due. There was some justice to that.
You think about the James Brown band or the Ray Charles band. At its peak, B.B.’s was as good as anyone’s. Him and Bobby Bland, they took all the best elements of American music. He took the best of everything he was into and made it his thing. You could definitely hear the different people he was into, whether it was Django Reinhardt or Charlie Christian, in his early playing. He just took the best of what we had and really brought it to the world. He really evolved. Early on, he was borrowing from Lonnie Johnson and T. Bone Walker. Then the amplifiers changed, the sounds changed and he adapted with the time and that sweet spot happened. And once that bell-tone note rang out, that was that. “This is going to be the thing. This is the stop.” Great artists search. Some things you find will forever be part of your arsenal.
I love Live at Cook County Jail, Live at the Regal. I love those early Flair recordings, when he’s just a baby. It’s kind of hard to go wrong with him. You just need to pick a decade and pick a few records up. There’s a few amazing YouTube clips. The “Live in Africa” clips – you can tell it meant a lot to him to be over there, coming from where he did in Mississippi and the direct lineage. It’s a pretty profound performance.
“You could go anywhere in the world and people love B.B. King.”
He was as good as an ambassador for this country as anybody. You could go anywhere in the world and people love B.B. King. That’s hard to do. You can say his name anywhere on the globe and people get that look in their eye. He was above it all.
For B.B., when he found that tone, it was a watershed moment for guitar. After that, every one of us has borrowed or stolen that sound and that feel. It’s really like a great voice. It’s that thing you can’t really define. It’s pure, but it’s dirty. It’s broken in the right spots. It’s true. He talked about his uncle, Bukka White, and the sound of his slide and trying to emulate that, which you can hear in his vibrato. But that tone set him apart. I still try to do it. Still to this day, when you’re trying to get a sound, that’s one of the things you go to — can you do that? It really is the goal, for Eric and a lot of us. It’s the thing we’re all after.