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'Summer Of Soul': A Conversation With Blues Legend B.B. King

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're ending the summer with our series Summer of Soul, a collection of interviews with musicians featured in Questlove's concert documentary, "Summer Of Soul." It was released over the summer and is streaming on Hulu. The film features never-before-shown footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which showcased performances by soul, R&B, jazz and gospel performers, including Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, The Staple Singers and The 5th Dimension. The documentary includes interviews describing the ways in which the festival reflected changes in Black culture and politics.

The interviews from our archive that we'll hear with performers featured in the film include Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Max Roach, and one of my favorite jazz singers, Abbey Lincoln. Today, we have my 1988 interview with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and my 1996 interview with one of the best-known blues singers and guitarists of all time, B.B. King.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE THRILL IS GONE")

GROSS: B.B. King was born in 1925 in Indianola, Miss. He was a sharecropper's son who worked on a plantation until, as a young man, he relocated to Memphis in 1947 and began busking on streets with his guitar. He remained true to his blues style throughout countless shifts in the pop music world. He recorded and performed well into his 80s and died in 2015 at the age of 89. Here's his 1969 recording of one of the songs he was most associated with, "The Thrill Is Gone."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE THRILL IS GONE")

B B KING: (Singing) The thrill is gone. The thrill is gone away. The thrill is gone, baby. The thrill is gone away. You know you done me wrong, baby, and you'll be sorry someday.

(Singing) The thrill is gone. It's gone away from me. The thrill is gone, baby. The thrill is gone away from me. Although I'll still live on, but so lonely I'll be.

GROSS: When I spoke with B.B. King in 1996, his autobiography, "Blues All Around Me," had just been published. I asked him about his first guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KING: It had a hole in center, and it was made by a company called Stella. And it was red.

GROSS: Did you think that was cool or silly (laughter)?

KING: No, I thought this was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. A guitar makes a sound. You pluck the strings. Man, how much more heaven can you have (laughter)? That's the way it seemed to me at the time. Believe it or not, I still hear the sound of that sound, if you will, through the guitar that I play today.

GROSS: You hear the sound of that very first red guitar?

KING: Yes, I do.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now, I love the way you describe developing your style. It sounds like you developed your style by trying and failing to imitate your influences - people like Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, your cousin Buckle White, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian.

KING: Charlie Christian, yes. I'm still doing that.

GROSS: Still trying and failing?

KING: (Laughter) Yeah, trying and failing. Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now, you also left Hawaiian guitar. How did you hear Hawaiian guitar, and how did it - why was it so exciting to you? It was another sound you tried to emulate.

KING: Well, I'd hear it on the radio. I would hear the Hawaiian sound or the country music players play steel and slide guitars, if you will. And I hear that - to me, a steel guitar is one of the sweetest sounds this side of heaven. I still like it. And that was one of the things that I tried to do so much, was to imitate that - that sound. I could never get it. I still haven't been able to do it. And that was the beginning of the trill on my hand.

GROSS: Tell me more about the trill on your hand.

KING: Well, it's - how can I tell you? It's sort of like - it's not really pushing and pulling the strings like a lot of guitar players think I do. But it's like kind of just shaking your hand and getting a vibration on the string a little bit. So maybe a mini bit of pushing and pulling, but not from the strength of my hand. It's just from the shaking of it.

GROSS: Now, also, you play a kind of single-line guitar as opposed to, you know, chords or rhythm guitar. Tell me, also, about developing that style of single note.

KING: Well, every time I've worked in a band, I was always featured. And they'd hardly let me play in the rhythm section. Usually, for some reason, most of the players would always say, B., take the solo. Take the lead. And I got in the habit of doing that. So I put more emphasis on the single string than I did the chords. I can play a few chords, but I'm no great chord player.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: But for example, if you were singing or playing, I could play chords pretty well behind you with a guideline, the guideline meaning if I had a bass player or keyboard player, somebody that's playing the D chords, I could play then. I could play behind you very well. But other than that, I'm sad. Anybody hear me play by myself, I've just lost that person, you know? They won't listen to me anymore. That's the end (laughter).

GROSS: So did you feel that your strength lay not in just being a guitar player or in just being a singer, but in doing both together?

KING: I think both together. I started to feel that I had to be a good entertainer to keep a job. And I'm kind of happy that I developed in my head that I'm never any better than my last concert or my last time I played. So it's like an audition each time. Quite often, it's quite a bit like - some say when you're going on stage, you have stage fright. In so many words, you get nervous just before going on stage. And I still have that, but I think it's more like concern. You're concerned about the other people. It's like meeting your in-laws for the first time.

GROSS: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY I SING THE BLUES")

KING: (Singing) When I first got the blues, they brought me over on a ship. Men were standing over me and a lot more with a whip. And everybody want to know why I sing the blues. Well, I've been around a long time. Mmm, I've really paid my dues.

(Singing) I've laid in the ghetto flats, cold and numb. I heard the rats tell the bedbugs to give the roaches some. Everybody want to know why I'm singing the blues. Yes, I've been around a long time. People, I've paid my dues.

(Singing) I stood in line down at the County Hall. I heard a man say, we're gonna build some new apartments for y'all. And everybody want to know - yes, they want to know why I'm singing the blues. Yes, I've been around a long, long time. Yes, I've really, really paid dues.

Now I'm going to play Lucille. (Playing guitar).

(Singing) My kid's going to grow up - going to grow up to be a fool 'cause they ain't got no more room - no more room for him in school. And everybody want to know - everybody want to know why I'm singing the blues. I say, I've been around a long time. Yes, I've really paid some dues. Yeah. You know, the company told me...

GROSS: You're from a family of sharecroppers. What was the work that you had to do?

KING: Well, I was a regular hand when I was about 7. I chopped cotton. I picked cotton. I helped to plant it. I did everything that the grown-ups do. And that's mostly - the work had to do with - cotton was the king, if you will, of the produce in the Mississippi Delta when I was growing up - peanuts, maybe, later, and soybeans later. But cotton still is today one of the main produces that's raised in the Mississippi Delta.

GROSS: What was the financial arrangement between your family and the plantation owner?

KING: Well, a sharecropper was meant to be exactly what they say, share cropper - but generally, the boss that owned the plantation, did all of the paperwork, if you will. He was the CPA. He sold the produce that you raised. For example, a family of maybe five or six would have, maybe, a hundred acres to work. And maybe they would make 20, 25 bales of cotton. And it was all dealt with through the plantation owner.

And at the end of the year, say late December - before Christmas, maybe two weeks or so - that's when we'd do what they call the settlement. And this is all done through the trust of the plantation owner. Other words, the sharecropper had nothing to do with it except what was told to him that had to do with his earnings. For example, Jim, you earned, after paying me back the advances I gave you - you made 25 bales of cotton. And the cotton brought maybe $5,000 a bale. And you owed me, say, 25 times that except maybe $2,000, so here's your $1,800 (laughter).

GROSS: We're listening to my 1996 interview with B.B. King. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF B.B. KING'S "BLUES WITH B.B.")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1996 interview with B.B. King.

You were - you know, you grew up on a plantation, then left it to go to Memphis, which is where you started really playing music professionally. It's a great story, how you left the plantation. You were driving a tractor.

KING: (Laughter).

GROSS: This was a problematic tractor that had - it had problems with after ignition. So one day, you turned off the tractor, walked out of the tractor. And then the tractor started jumping on its own, rammed into the barn. The exhaust pipe got crushed or, you know, broke off.

KING: Broke off, yes.

GROSS: And you were afraid of how much money you would owe that plantation owner...

KING: No. I was afraid that I would be killed (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, even worse (laughter).

KING: No (laughter). Well, he'd never kill anybody. But even - (laughter) I don't mean it that way, but scared to death, you know? Like if your mom cooked a cake and you decided that, you know, you were going to get a piece of it and you drop it, you know, and it spills on the floor - a brand-new cake that's made for the family. You would feel that mom is going to surely kill you, so you better get out of there. Well, that's the way I felt at the time that that tractor - when it backfired, you know, and ran out into there. It scared me half to death, so I panicked and left, hitchhiked to Memphis. Going from Indianola to Memphis then was like - oh, to me, like leaving Chicago going to Philly. It was that far. That's the way it seemed at the time. So I was scared to death. I left and stayed for a while and communicated back with my family. And my cousin, Bukka White, said, go on back there and take your lesson - take your medicine (laughter). So I finally went back. And Mr. Barrett was a very nice guy, a man that I admired so much. I wish that I could be a lot more like him.

GROSS: You know, the good thing, too, is that this - that accident forced you to leave the plantation. Maybe you wouldn't have left if it wasn't for that.

KING: No, no, no. I had planned to leave.

GROSS: You did?

KING: Yes. I had planned to leave. I had worked with a group called St. John Gospel Singers. And I thought we were very good. And believe it or not, I thought we was getting close to being like the Soul Stirrers, you know...

GROSS: The Sam Cooke's group. Yeah.

KING: Sam Cooke. You got it. The Golden Gate Quartet, that was - the Pilgrim Travelers and many other quartets that we admired and wanted to be like them, and I thought we was, you know, kind of a good opening act for some of them. And I'd wanted to leave two, three years before that. However, I had asked the guys a couple of years before to leave, you know? Let's go. Let's - I believe we're ready. And each time, the crops would be bad or something like that. And somebody would have an excuse and say, well, we didn't do so well this year. Let's try it again next year. And I was about fed up with hearing that. I was about ready to go anyway.

GROSS: What was Memphis like when you got there? What impressed you the most?

KING: It was like, oh, let's say, you lived in Cairo, Ill., and you moved to Chicago. Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: That's what Memphis was like, wow, wow - great, big city. I'd never been in a city that large before.

GROSS: And did you feel like, hey, this city is mine? Or did you feel like, I don't belong here?

KING: No, I felt that it was a place of learning because I was lucky. My cousin, Bukka White, lived there, and I had a chance to meet a lot of people when I came to Memphis. And I would go down on Beale Street and hear all these fine musicians playing, especially on the weekends. Memphis was sort of like, again, Chicago or any of the major metropolitan areas. People was coming through, going east or west. Other words, it was sort of like a meeting place, if you will, a port for people traveling from different places. So I had a chance to meet a lot of great giants in the business, jazz and otherwise. So I felt it was something - or a place, rather, that I could learn.

GROSS: Blues Man Sonny Boy Williamson had a radio show when you got to Memphis, "King Biscuit Time." And you went up to him and asked to sing on the program. It seems to me like a - you must have had the courage to just come in like that.

KING: Well, before I left Indianola, my hometown - Indianola, Miss. - I used to hear Sonny Boy over in Helena, Ark.

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

KING: He would come on air each day at 12:15 and - for about 15 minutes for the King Biscuit Company. And I felt that I knew him. It's sort of like watching TV or listening to you. A person listen to you and feel that they can trust you, feel that they really know you. You become, like, a name in the family. So that's the way I felt when I met him. I didn't know him but seemed to me I had known him all this time. So when I got to Memphis - he was in west Memphis, which is across the Mississippi River in Arkansas - I went over, and I felt - I guess I would have been hurt very badly had he not talked with me.

GROSS: He let you sing on his show?

KING: Yes, he did. I guess he said, a guy got this much nerve.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KING: And I'm very homely-looking.

GROSS: What'd you sing?

KING: I sang one of Ivory Joe Hunter's song. Ivory Joe Hunter, if you're not familiar with him, was a great songwriter and great musician. He made a lot of tunes, one or two that you probably have heard. Anyway, I sang one of his tunes called "Blues At Sunrise."

GROSS: And you got a response?

KING: Very much so. Sonny Boy seemed to like it. And Sonny Boy was a very big guy, you know? And his eyes was not very clear, looked a little redlike. And he was a very big fellow. And at that time, I weighed about 127. And he stood about, oh, 6 feet or more - and looking down on me, you know, like, hey, you better sing right. And I said, yes, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, you ended up getting your own radio show as well as your own gigs in Memphis. When you were on the radio, one of the things that you had to do was sing - well, write and then sing a jingle for Pepticon, which was - what? - a kind of cure-all remedy?

KING: Yes. Pepticon was a tonic that was supposed to be good for whatever ails you. And we sold a lot of it. And I think a lot of it had to do - I didn't learn until much later that it was 12% alcohol. So a lot of the older people bought it. And especially church people, (laughter) they bought a lot of it.

GROSS: And the only way to drink and be legit (laughter)...

KING: Well, (laughter) I won't say that, but I do know that they bought it. I used to ride the trucks on the weekend with the salesmen, and people would stand in line sort of like going to a concert or a movie.

GROSS: Now, I want to get to another record recorded in 1952. You were 26. This is a recording of "Three O'Clock Blues." It had been a hit...

KING: Yes.

GROSS: ...A few years before for Lowell Fulson.

KING: Right.

GROSS: This was your first No. 1 record on the R&B charts.

KING: Very first.

GROSS: You're coming into your own here, don't you think - as a stylist?

KING: I'm a very happy guy to know that somebody tells me that I have a hit record.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: I was very happy to hear that (laughter). I think that's music to each performer's ear to hear that they have a top-selling record or CD.

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE O'CLOCK BLUES")

KING: (Singing) Now here it is 3 o'clock in the morning, can't even close my eyes. Oh, 3 o'clock in the morning, baby - can't even close my eyes. Well, I can't find my baby. Lord, then I can't be satisfied. Lord, I'll...

GROSS: We're listening to my 1996 interview with B.B. King, one of the performers featured in the film "Summer Of Soul," a concert documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which was a series of free concerts with top soul, blues, R&B, jazz and gospel performers. After a short break, we'll hear more of my interview with B.B. King and listen back to my 1988 interview with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, another performer showcased at the festival and in the concert documentary.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE O'CLOCK BLUES")

KING: (Singing) ...Down to golden ground.

That's where the mens hang out at. Well, I'm bound to find her (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF B.B. KING'S "KING OF GUITAR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1996 interview with B.B. King, one of the musicians featured in the concert documentary "Summer of Soul" which was released earlier this summer and is streaming on Hulu. The film documented the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and the changes it represented in Black culture and politics. Over the summer of '69, the festival presented a series of free concerts featuring top soul, R&B, gospel, jazz and blues performers. When we left off, we were listening to B.B. King's record "Three O'Clock Blues." It was his first record that went to No. 1 on the R&B charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: How did that record change your life?

KING: Well, it changed my life in many ways. One thing, financially, because I had been making about $60 a week at this radio station. And I would go out and pick cotton. I would drive trucks and tractors. I did everything to try to make ends meet if you will 'cause my music wasn't taking care of me. And when I made "Three O'Clock Blues," I started then to get guarantees, maybe, like, $400 or $500 a day when I played out.

And that made a big defense - difference, rather, as far as financially speaking 'cause then I could hire more people to work with me. It made life easier. I could get a driver to keep from having to drive all the different places by myself. And my wife and I was able to live better, able to pay the band better. I was able to do many things that I hadn't been able to do prior to that. And of course, my popularity was much, much more popular if you will. And I just started to feel then that I was a real entertainer.

GROSS: In the mid-'60s, I guess it was, a lot of the rock guitarists started emulating you. I mean, you became a god to some of them, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton. And that helped introduce your music to college audiences. And then you started playing the college circuit in addition to the places you'd already been playing. What was it like for you to start playing the college circuit? Did you feel like - did it feel very different to you? Did you feel like you needed to change anything about your performance style? Was there anything you were doing that didn't seem to translate?

KING: Yes, I was frightened at first. Here I am, a high school dropout, and I'm going to be playing to college audiences. Yes, I felt that I should wear a hard hat and be Fred Astaire or Nat Cole.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Be real suave.

KING: Yeah. But I remember after "Three O'Clock Blues," I had a manager. My manager said, do not go to New York trying to be Nat Cole or anybody else. That's trying to be slick because there are people that sweeping the floors that are much better than you'll ever be.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: So the best thing for you to do is go there and be B.B. King.

GROSS: What good advice.

KING: Sing "Three O'Clock Blues." Sing the song that you sing the way you sing them. And he said, now, all these other people can do all of those other things, but they can't be you as you can be you. And that, I've tried to keep from then until now.

GROSS: I have met over the years a lot of people who've worked with you or toured with you. And it's just not possible, I think, to get anybody to say a bad word about you. I mean, your reputation is of somebody who treats everybody around him really well, with a lot of respect, always fair financially and in all other ways as well. And I'm just wondering if that's something that you consciously set out to do. If there - I'm not just trying to be nice here, I mean, I think it's just...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's just a kind of a fact that you're known for this. And I wonder if you think of yourself just naturally Mr. Nice Guy or if it's something that you've - you felt really obliged to do and have been very conscious about doing.

KING: There are some things that I've read that I truly believe in. I believe that one should treat others as they want to be treated. And that's one of the things that I try to live by if you will, is trying to be fair to people as I want them to be to me.

GROSS: One of your recordings that I particularly love happens to be a recording with the Duke Ellington Orchestra...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Your recording of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

KING: Right.

GROSS: I mean, gee, you don't even play guitar on this. It's so strange. It's such a unusual recording. How'd it feel to sing with the Ellington Orchestra and...

KING: Frightening (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah, and not have a guitar. I mean, I don't think playing in that.

KING: Well, I was afraid to try to sing, and trying to play guitar would have been just too much. But today, I'm more familiar with a lot of the standard tunes, and I would like to try and play the melodies instead of singing them.

GROSS: B.B. King, it's really been such a delight to talk with you. Thank you very, very much for your time. Thank you for being here.

KING: Thank you. You're very kind to talk with. I enjoy your voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE")

KING: (Singing) Missed the Saturday dance. I heard they crowded the floor. It's awfully different without you. Don't get around much anymore. I thought I'd visit the club, got as far as the door. I just couldn't bear it without you. I don't get around much anymore. Darling, I guess my mind is more at ease. But nevertheless, why stir up memories? Been invited on dates. I might have gone, but what for? I just couldn't bear it without you. I don't get around much anymore.

GROSS: My interview with B.B. King was recorded in 1996. He died in 2015 at the age of 89. He's one of the performers showcased in the concert documentary "Summer of Soul" featuring performances from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The film is now streaming on Hulu. After a break, we'll hear my 1988 interview with another performer featured in the documentary, South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.