“You have a grape,” B.B. King said, handing over a big purple one. “They’re pretty good.” It was April 2008, and King, then 82 years old, was in Las Vegas’ Hard Rock Hotel for a Rolling Stone cover shoot, posing alongside Eddie Van Halen for a guitar-themed issue. When it came time for King’s interview, he sat in a wheelchair in an empty hotel ballroom, sipping a Diet Coke, wearing his usual jacket and tie. While he spoke about his childhood in 1920s Mississippi, where electric lights were a special treat, the faint squeals of revelers and thumping dance music from an afternoon pool party just outside drifted in. (The Q&A that follows is a greatly extended version of a piece that ran in the June 12th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone).
Do you still live here in Vegas?
As long as I can pay the rent. I’ve only been out here 30 years. Still paying the rent, so everything’s cool. One thing about Vegas, it’s a nice city but you need a buck or two. You’ve got to have a job doing something. But I’ve been pretty lucky. I’m still working. And I don’t do much work here in the city but I’m always out. I just came in from Salt Lake City I think two or three days ago.
To take you all the way back, the first guitar that you were interested in was played by the reverend in your church, right?
Yes. That’s the first time I got interested in playing with it.
What did it sound like when he was playing in church? What kind of playing did he do?
Heaven. Heaven. I don’t know what kind of guitar he had. But that was the first electric guitar that I heard. See, we had been used to having just a regular acoustic roundhouse. Half the time part of the strings was broken so you’d have to take something and tie it on the neck kind of like you’d have the clamp on today.
Well, we had to do that on the guitars around the house because no strings. So you would tie the string, tighten it up as much as you could, take a pencil or something like that and put it on as a clamp. Patch what was broken. Then you play. But the preacher, Reverend Fair, had an electric guitar. I don’t know, it was just exciting to me, man.
Would he play a solo? Or was he just playing chords?
I don’t believe he was playing a lot of chords but he was playing like you would if you was just having fun, singing and you’re frailing – we used that word. Just playing, as long as it’s within the tune of what you’re doing.. And what he did do was so exciting to me. This little guy here wanted to play.