It’s good to be the King — B.B. King, to be specific. In the last month, the legendary bluesman saw his collaboration with Eric Clapton, Riding with the King, debut at No. 3 on the nation’s album chart and his classy B.B. King Blues Club & Grill open in the tourist hotbed of New York’s Times Square. Of course, as significant as both achievements were, they’re mere blips on a career that spans five decades, 100 albums and has seen King anointed “Ambassador of the Blues” for taking his music to eighty-eight different countries around the world. And at seventy-four years old, he’s not about to slow down. Following a five-night stint in New York celebrating the grand opening of his club with two-hour-plus shows a night, King headed directly overseas for a European tour. Wanna ride with the King? Just try and keep up.
Congratulations on bringing your B.B. King Blues Club & Grill to New York. Do you plan on opening any more?
The idea when we first started with the one in Memphis was to do ten. So we’ve got one in Memphis, we’ve got one in Hollywood in Universal City and now we have one here in New York, and were talking in terms of seven more. It started about nine years ago.
Does this mean that your days of performing at New York’s Apollo Theater are over?
We will probably do some more [shows] in other places, but this is the home. B.B. King’s Blues Club is where we’ll spend most of the time.
So whose idea was it for you to collaborate with Eric Clapton on Riding With the King?
Well, I think we kind of approached each other. People praise me for playing guitar and I know [Eric is] number one. Of rock & roll guitarists, nobody plays better than he does, and he plays blues better than a lot of us. It’s been said many times, ‘Why don’t you and Eric do something together?’ Finally, he found the time, and here we are.
Were you surprised when the album debuted at No. 3?
I thought that album was good, but I never know how it’s [going to do] and what the critics think ’til it’s out. I thought I was lucky — lucky to be with my friend Eric Clapton, and lucky that the people liked it.
There’s a picture in the inner sleeve of you and Clapton playing together sometime in the Sixties. Do you remember where it was taken?
No, I don’t, but I know when I first met him and I know we were both young then. He said we first met at [legendary New York blues club] Cafe A Go Go. I remember being there — I don’t know if that’s where we first met, and I don’t know if that’s were the picture was taken, but it could be.
So who got to choose the tracks for the album?
That was Eric’s job [laughs]. I told him to pick all of the tunes and if I disagreed we’d talk about it — and we didn’t. He had such a memory for bringing up old tunes and such a great idea for getting new ones together. So I trust him completely.
What’s your favorite song on the album?
“Riding With the King,” because it tells the story that we were trying to tell.
How about your favorite record of all time?
My favorite record is a theme done by Willie Nelson, and it’s titled “Always On My Mind.”
Other than your obvious passion for playing, what’s kept you on the road for so long?
I had to do it. It’s like an old tale we tell at times: The dog is running around and the rabbit is sitting down and when the dog gets too close to the rabbit, the rabbit runs. The other rabbit asks, ‘Why you running round?’ And the rabbit says, ‘I got to. I don’t want to get caught!’ It’s been like that for me for many years. I did what I did because I had to. If I didn’t do it, I’d get run over.
There’s a story about the country artist Hank Snow, who spent so long on the road that when he was at home he would still sleep in his tour bus. Has it ever come to that with you?
I’ve never gone that far, but the first few days I’m home at nights I’ll close my bedroom door because it makes me feel like I’m in a hotel.
How many shows are you doing these days?
We are averaging about 200 or more. We’re not doing as many as we have done. At seventy-four years old, I’m starting to cut down a bit but I’ll never stop as long as God lets me play.