Proud of your vast CD collection? Think your iTunes library is bursting with great stuff? Trust me, B.B. King has you beat. Two weeks ago, when I was in Missouri to interview the 85-year-old blues legend while he was touring on the road, I spent time with "the Boss" in the back of his cozy bus. My interview appears in today's Wall Street Journal (go here). Like a kid eager to show off a cool toy, B.B. was only too happy to walk me through his stereo system and his large digital collection.
Actually, "stereo system" is probably an antiquated term for the rig B.B. has installed back there. Technically, it's a Kaleidoscope home-theater system that stores thousands of digital music and movie files. To display the system's library, B.B. touches a small screen that functions as a remote. This displays all of the albums and DVDs loaded into the system on a large flat screen. They come up first as covers. Then B.B. moves a white frame around on the big screen to the album he wants to hear and touches the small screen again to call up the tracks.
If you know enough about B.B.'s background, all of this makes perfect sense. B.B. started out as a guitar-playing, record-spinning disc jockey at WDIA in Memphis back in 1949. "I think you're right," he said. "My passion for music—all kinds—started back on that radio show."
Sitting on a leather banquette in B.B.'s tour bus almost knee to knee with the King of the Blues, I couldn't help but sense that the guitarist was a little shy. It wasn't the meek kind of shy but the shy that comes when you spend large amounts of time alone and suddenly your space is invaded.
But within minutes, we had bonded—over jazz. It turns out B.B. is a big jazz fan—Charlie Parker, Chu Berry [pictured], Count Basie, you name the artist and B.B. knows the artist and likely saw him perform. And why not? The jazz greats are rooted in the blues.
"I saw all of them—and I emphasize saw. The blues is like high school and jazz is like college. These guys could do things no one could imitate. I'd hang around and watch them. Freddie Green could drive the whole Basie band with just his acoustic guitar. There may have been a microphone in front of him from time to time. But he played an acoustic instrument back then. Now that's really something. Freddie was a whole orchestra by himself. You know who reminds me of him? The Edge [pictured] from U2. .
"I'm from the South. I didn't live in Chicago, like Muddy and a lot of the other blues guys did. Same with Kansas City. I'd come in to Kansas City, like I am tonight, play a show and get out. But I knew about these jazz guys. After concerts, no matter where we were playing in the country, most of the blues musicians of my generation would go out and try to find these jazz guys at local jam sessions. That's where we got our feel, if you will. [Pictured: Kansas City, at 18th and Vine, in the 1940s; Driggs Collection]
"Did I go out and find Basie? Oooh, yes I did [huge laughter].
"On most of my early recordings, whenever the Bihari brothers [owners of Modern Records] needed a record, they would come out on the road and find me. Then we'd go to the nearest place to record. One time we recorded at a bass player's house—Tuff Green, one of the leading r&b musicians at the time. Actually, he had been in one of my earlier bands. In that band I had Tuff, Phineas Newborn on piano, his father on drums, and his brother Calvin on guitar, among others.
"When I was young growing up in Kilmichael, Mississippi, I sang in a choir in our Baptist church and later started a gospel quartet. That was the first time I dreamed about becoming popular. I had wanted to be a gospel singer. We had several vocal quartets down there that were very popular. I still like gospel today.
"Our preacher, Archie Fair, was my mother's brother's brother-in-law—I know, that's a mouthful. He played the electric guitar and sang in the church. It was the first electric guitar I had ever seen or heard. He'd make you feel so good in church on Sundays. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be a gospel singer and preacher.
"Down in Kilmichael, kids weren't allowed to eat with adults during Sunday dinners. After the chicken was put out on the table, the adults would eat and the kids would go off and play. Well, before Archie came to eat, he would leave his guitar on the bed. Usually I climbed up on the bed and fooled around with it. One time he and my uncle caught me. Electric guitars were rare and expensive then, and my uncle wanted to beat me up for messing with it. But Mr. Fair made him not do that. Then Mr. Fair showed me three chords that I still use today—one, four and five. It can be played in any key. Its the pattern, the positions. It's country music.
"When I played the Fillmore Auditorium in 1967, I saw so many white kids, it scared me half to death. I had played the Fillmore many times before—but for black audiences. I had never played for white people. All of my many gigs over the years had been at black clubs. So I didn't know what was going to happen, how they would react. It was like going from here to Afghanistan [laughs].
"We had a bus then that I called Big Red. When we pulled up in Big Red in 1967 at the Fillmore in San Francisco, I didn't realize I'd be playing for a young white audience. I had heard of the hippie movement, you see, but I had never seen them. We had always played all the way down South and in the Middle West on a circuit. Occasionally we'd play outside of New York City. When we'd play Manhattan, it would be the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
"We didn't go out West much. My record company was in Los Angeles, of course, but I was always on the road. When we would play in California, we'd play around Los Angeles in black clubs. We had also played a few times at the Broadway Club in Los Angeles. All of the places I had played were small—200 to 250 people. Nothing like the 2,000 or more people who were at the Fillmore that day in 1967.
"When we got out at the Fillmore, white kids were sitting on all those hard concrete benches in there talking to themselves. They all had long hair. I had never seen anything like that. I told my road manager, 'Go and get the promoter.' I had never met Bill Graham before. When he came out, he was real business. One of the best promoters ever. Real business.
"We shook hands and I asked him if I was in the wrong place. He said, 'No B., this is the right place. Come on in.' He took me to the old dressing room but as we went up, we had to wade through kids who were sitting all over the floor. In order to get through, we had to carefully step around and through them. [Pictured: Bill Graham]
"They were completely serene. That was was unusual to me because if we had been in a black place, the people sitting there would have said, 'Hey, watch it, man! What are you doing? Don't step on me." These kids didn't seem to care at all. They just sat there.
"When we got up to the dressing room, I said to Bill, 'I don't drink a lot but you have to get me a drink or I ain't gonna make it.' He got me half a pint of something and I took a slug or two. Bill said, 'B., I'm going to leave you here to take care of some business. When it's time to go on stage, I'm going to come and get you.'
"And he did. When he went out on the stage, he gave me one of the best introductions I had ever received in my life. While I was waiting to come on, he said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the Chairman of the Board, B.B. King.' Wow, the chairman of the board.
"That's when the audience went crazy. I came out, and there I was, standing there crying. I had never had that happen to me. I had never been introduced like that. I didn't think that white people had heard of me or knew anything about my music. People ask me about crossing over, and that for me was the first time. Tears were coming down my face because I had never played in front of a white audience before and had never been treated like that, recognized for who I was. [Pictured: Bill Graham in his office at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1967]
"Most people think my favorite album is Live at the Regal , which critics love. It's good, but it's not my favorite. My favorite is My Kind of Blues . No one liked it but me [laughs]. I still love it today.
"Eventually I left the Bihari brothers [in 1962]. It was around the time they started selling my records for 99 cents at truck stops. That's why I left. I wasn't being properly recognized or promoted, so I went to ABC.
"The blues is a good feeling when everything is working just right. If you have a good group behind you, a good setting, there's nothing like it. It's a feeling that you don't get any other way. When the band plays strong behind me, I feel like crying. I feel emotional inside when I hear or sing the blues. It's a good feeling. It's like church for me.
"I used to have a pretty good voice when i was younger. As I get older, it sounds heavier and doesn't often suit me. I always do my best, but a lot of times my best isn't like what it used to be.
"What happened to my large LP collection? I've been divorced twice [laughs]. My ex-wives took them. Always. But now I have everything here in this Kaleidoscope. And it's a lot easier. I just love music. And it doesn't have to be just the blues."
JazzWax tracks: Love B.B. King but unsure which albums to download or buy? You can cover a vast stretch of his extensive career with four albums. My favorites are:
- Singin' the Blues and The Blues on a single CD or download here.
- B.B. King: Complete Collection is at iTunes.
- My Kind of Blues is here.
- Live at the Regal is here.
JazzWax clips: Here's B.B. King in 1961 singing Cryin' Won't Help You from My Kind of Blues...
Here's B.B. King in 1968 on Ralph J. Gleason's San Francisco TV show Jazz Casual...