“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.
Did it sound very modern to you, that sound?
I don’t lie to you man. I’m trying to be honest. I didn’t know modern from old! I didn’t know one from the other. It’s the truth. It just to me was like a kid going to his first county fair or something.. My mother used to sometimes talk about spanking me and making me go to church. But when we went to Reverend Archie’s church I’d almost be leading her by the hand. “Come on,” you know. And we had an electric light in church, which was something that was rare in the area. And he would plug up and boy, I’ll tell you. It was something like heaven to me. And I really wanted to be a gospel singer like him, too. I really did. That was one of the first people that I ever saw doing something that I wished I could do and wanted to do it. And had thoughts about trying to do it.
One of the first songs you learned was “You Are My Sunshine.”
You know, I just learned a few years ago that Governor Jimmy Davis wrote the song. And I was such a big fan of his, I had some of my people to write him and tell him how much I appreciated the song and thought that he was terrific. You know what he did? He sent me a picture, autographed, and thanked me. That’s big people. You understand what I mean? A governor and he did that for me. Little old B.B. King.
Anyway, I had gotten large enough to know about a company, a mail order company called Sears Roebuck at the time. I think it’s just called Sears today.
And it was a guy that advertised guitar books in the Sears Roebuck catalog. And his name, I don’t know why I never forget it, but his name was Nick Maniloff.. And I ordered me one of them books. And the first tune I learned to do was “You Are My Sunshine.” And I even do it sometimes now in a concert, because I do it for ladies, you know. And it seemed to fit. People seem to like it. And that’s the beginning. And I used to sit on the street corners after I got to be a teenager where I could get out by myself. And I’d be sitting out there singing and playing my gospel songs. And I can’t dance, but I kept good time. I ain’t never danced in my life. When I was married my wife used to get me on the floor sometimes, but the way she’d get me out there she’d give me some orange juice and put vodka in it. So she’d get me out there. But I’ve never danced.
You were probably always too busy practicing guitar.
Funny thing, I used to see kids going to dance, going to places. And I was almost at that time always interested in the guitar more than even girls.
When I’d see guys and girls going to movie theaters, I never did. I’d be fooling with the guitar.
Where did you first hear single-note soloing on the electric guitar?
T-Bone Walker was the first that I heard to do it on electric guitar. But if you pick up some of the early, early Lonnie Johnson, you’ll hear all of that. Just not amplified, but you’ll hear it all. And it’s just as clear as a crystal. His notes were precise. Whatever he hit at, he didn’t miss it, ever. And it came out, oh, boy, that sound was bright and soulful.
None of those guys were bending notes with vibrato the way you did.
I wanted to be able to do like my cousin, Bukka White and some of the other great slide guitarists. I have stupid fingers. They just wouldn’t do it. Or stupid head, one or the other. And I also fell in love with Leon [McAuliffe], who used to play steel guitar with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. I never knew his last name, but you’d always hear Bob say, oh, Leon. And the guitar talked.
So I always equated the bottleneck with that sound. I used to hear records from the islands, like Hawaii, and the guitar player would sound something similar to that, too. So what I would do is take the guitar, the neck of the guitar, and every time I played it, twirled my hand like this. My stupid ears were saying that sounds similar to what they were doing. And every time I pick up a guitar that’s the first thing I try to do. I just trill my hand. It got better at it. I can’t really show you, but holding the neck of the guitar, you grab a note and just trill your hand. It’s just grab the note and you just hold it. But after I practiced for a while, you learn that you can sustain it. I could hold it until I get ready to turn it loose.
Eddie Van Halen was here today too – what do you make of him?
He’s an artist, a great guitarist. That’s what he is. You know a way I think about guitar players today, I think of them as I do doctors. You’ve got the regular MD, then you’ve got the heart surgeon. And the surgeon for this and that and so on. He’s one of those specialists.
I love that. So what would that make you, then?
One of a kind. Yes.
No, I didn’t mean it like that. I’ve seen myself on those lists of the 100 best guitarists, and if they think that I’m that good, thank them. Thank God for them. But I don’t think so.
But maybe that dissatisfaction is what makes you good.
Even now, at 82 years old, if I don’t learn something every day, you know what I think? It’s a day lost. Now, I don’t practice every day. I just take the guitar, swear at it. But I should be swearing at myself. But I fool with music. I’m doing something musically all the time. And my ears are wide open for anything I can hear. I’ve never heard anybody play that didn’t play something I like. But I’m going to tell you something else that will bust your bubble. I’ve never heard anybody played everything I liked.
When did you realize that your style was having a wide influence?
Well, I was watching TV one night, and the lead singer of the Beatles – John Lennon – said he wished he could play like B.B. King. I almost fell out of my chair. And that started me to thinking, “God, what am I doing? The greatest group on Earth, and the guy is saying that to me?” I tried not to let it go to my head. But I sure thought about it. That was like Jesus Christ coming down and saying, “Yeah, B., you’re pretty good.”
And then I started trying to be more concerned, tried to be – How to use the word? More careful about what I did and how I did it. That’s when I started to do that. Prior to that I was just having fun, enjoying myself, trying to make a dollar.
What did you make of Eric Clapton?
Even today, in my opinion Clapton is number one. He’s number one. He’s the best rock & roll guitarist in my opinion of the day. And he plays blues better than most of us.
Clapton aside, over the years, you must have heard some bad white-boy blues where they’re playing too hard and too fast.
Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. But I believe that guitar players are kind of like the days of the wild West. The one that was the fastest was the one that practiced the most. But I don’t even talk that fast, so why in the heck would I play fast? So what I do mostly in my case is try to play the note to make it make sense, not only to me but to you too.
When you’re deep into a solo, when you’re playing a solo, what’s in your head?
I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me that before. I wish I knew how to tell you. Sometimes I forget who I am. When I’m on the stage, I won’t be thinking about, hey, boy, I’m something else. I’m thinking about trying to tell this story that I want you to understand. It’s like now, just talking with you, it makes me feel good if I can make you understand what I’m trying to tell you. Even if I don’t have all the words, I’m doing my best. That’s the same way I think about the music.
What legacy would you like to leave? What would you like people to say about you when you’re gone?
About me? I tried. I’d like for them to think that I tried, because I did. I don’t feel that no big stone should be put over my head, saying he did this, he did that. Unless there’s something that I really did do. I believe I’m just ordinary. And I’d like for people to think of me that way, as just a guy that tried. Wanted to be loved by other people because he loved people. And he’s an ordinary guy that’s not here with us any more.
You’re still with us now, though, thankfully.
I think so! But I want to let you know something. Each day is a new day for me. And each day is a day that I feel good when I can wake up the next morning. We have an old saying, any day you wake up and look in the obituary column and don’t see your name, you’re a lucky dude, you know? I’ve got the greatest people that’s around me. I’ve got the greatest band that plays things that I like. And the people of today are so great. In the beginning my audience was about 90 and 95 percent black. But then as I got older, my black audience – a lot of them I used to see I don’t see any more. But now we’re starting to see white people from as young as they can bring them in, some of the places we play, to my age and older in places we do play. Man, that to me is Godsend. I’m enjoying that. I’m enjoying today, the greatest time in my life other than when I was married. When I was married, I enjoyed that better.
Are you going to be playing a hundred shows a year for the foreseeable future?
No. My dad died, I think, at 87. So I’ll be lucky if I make 87. But in a lot of cases the younger people, live longer, than their parents. And they know more. My dad used to tell me he ate the hog from his rooter to his tooter. So do I, when I’m not trying to lose weight. But I have learned, though, there are things that you can eat that’s more fattening than others. And I’ve learned that things you can eat that are healthier than what we used to think. And if he made it that far and he didn’t know that, I should be able to make it a year or so more if possible.
But if I don’t, I’d like to say to you and anyone whoever takes your story, I have been blessed. People have been good to me. It’s like somebody sees you playing some kind of sports and how they usually do the coach at the end – they pick him up and set him up. That’s the way I feel today at my age now. I feel like all of the people that have worked with me, they grab me and put me up on their shoulders. I become very emotional sometimes. You feel like you want to cry because to be treated that nicely, what can you say but thank God. Thanks to the people that does it.