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At 80, B.B. King still works for the blues

Still on the road, the music icon describes his struggle to succeed
/ Source: Reuters

Now that he’s a beloved musical icon, turning 80 and embraced by both blacks and whites, it’s difficult to understand that B.B. King comes from a time when there were two Americas.

Before the 13 Grammys, induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Kennedy Center honors, the eponymous night clubs, even before he picked up a guitar, the blues singer picked cotton, drove tractors and sawed wood. He never finished high school.

And despite all the fame, the worldwide accolades and the records with rock kings like Eric Clapton and Bono, he has never forgotten growing up in the segregated South, where they just opened the B.B. King museum in Indianola, Mississippi, near his birthplace on a plantation.

“We went through some hard times,” King, who turned 80 Friday, recalled. “Let me tell you this, if we didn’t have good white friends during that era when I was growing up, there would be no blacks in Mississippi. At that time, a white person could kill you any time they wished and nothing would ever be done about it.

“But there was a lot of white people who didn’t believe in that and wouldn’t allow it. So I was lucky.”

Sitting in his tour bus before a House of Blues gig in Atlantic City, King talked in an interview about life on the road, of his 30 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, of his love of flying and nature and old cowboy movies. But mostly, he talked about the blues, that music, which like King himself, grew out of the suffering and hardships of plantation labor.

“I think of blues this way: It’s life as we’ve lived it in the past, life as we’re living it today and life I believe we will live tomorrow. Because, to me, it has to do with people, places and things,” he said.

“Now this old bus here may be OK, but 10 years from now there’s no telling what buses will look like, it’s the same with blues.”

But considering that a majority of his audiences are boomer-generation whites and young blacks have turned their back on the blues for rap, isn’t the music irrelevant now?

“No,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the same as it was and ever will be because each generation bring their own people.

“Think of it this way: Beethoven and Brahms and all those guys, the music hasn’t changed, the people have. But you still hear it and it’s still good. I think of the blues the same way.”

Working for the bluesAsked about his punishing 300-plus days-a-year touring schedule, King said: “I only had three months off in 60 years.

“I haven’t been lucky like some of the rock ’n roll players. A lot of them go out for three or four months and then they stop for two or three years. I’ve never been able to do that, I’m a blues singer.

“Blues singers, blues players, we haven’t been popular,” said King, a bear of a man laid low now by diabetes that forces him to sit on stage with his guitar “Lucille” across his lap.

But it is obvious that King, who had a big hit in 1970 with ”The Thrill is Gone,” still gets a thrill from performing.

At age 80, doesn’t he ever consider retiring? “I couldn’t afford to do it,” King laughed. “I have days off, but we don’t get airplay like other styles of music, so I learned at an early age that unless I go out and carry music to the people, it sure don’t come to them by air.”

He harks back to the plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, where he was born on Sept. 16, 1925. “I never thought I’d make 80 years, even 50 seemed very old, because where I grew up in the country there, we didn’t have the medicines, the doctors, the hospitals, like people in the city have.

“The Bible says three score and ten and here I am a bit older than that,” he giggled. “I’ve been in 18 automobile accidents, but I’ve never had one myself ... it was always someone else!”

Always busyKing said he was driving at age 13. “I was a truck driver, a tractor driver. I picked cotton, I plowed (with) mules. I did most of the stuff people do on a plantation, your work is never done. You survive.”

And survive, he has, to become probably the last of the blues greats after the deaths of two Mississippi contemporaries -- R.L Burnside this month and John Lee Hooker in 2001.

The break came after the war when King hitch-hiked to Memphis and got a job as a disc-jockey at radio station WDIA. People heard his guitar-playing and singing and he recorded with the legendary Sam Phillips, who later founded Sun Records.

It was in Memphis where Riley King won the nickname “The Beale Street Blues Boy,” which was shortened to just “Blues Boy” and then B.B.

King’s first record was cut with the Nashville label, Bullet, and typically for a musical pro, he remembers the tracks. “There were four sides. I was married at the time -- so one was called ’Miss Martha King,’ the second was ’How Do You Feel when Your Baby Packs Up to Go,’ the third was ’Take a Swing with Me’ and the fourth ’I’ve Got the Blues.”’

Hundreds of recordings later, King’s career is being feted, with Virgin putting out a double album of his early hits and Geffen/Universal releasing “B.B. King and Friends - 80,” which features him playing with the likes of Clapton, Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, Elton John and Sheryl Crow.

Also there is a book, “The B.B. King Treasures,” from Bullfich Press, which is full of facsimiles of memorabilia --notes, photos, programs -- from King’s life.

As for his 80th birthday, what was King doing to celebrate at his home in Las Vegas? “I haven’t planned to do anything. Not a thing at all.” he said.