A Blues Man, But A Good Man

B.B. King: ‘The blues is a tonic that’s good for you’. Photo courtesy A Tom Moffatt Production

I’d hoped to be writing an Old Friends feature on blues legend B.B. King in this week’s issue – he and his band are performing in the Islands. But when MidWeek requested an interview, B.B.’s response through a publicist was, “I’m 85, I’m done doing interviews.”

To which I responded, “Can’t blame him.”

Besides, I’ve been fortunate to interview B.B., my all-time musical hero, a few times over the years, including a long and memorable one for a MidWeek cover story prior to his New Year’s Eve 1995 show at the Sheraton-Waikiki. About six weeks before, I’d flown to Memphis to interview B.B. at his eponymous blues club on Beale Street. Having been told I’d have an hour with him, I was appalled as his road manager led me to the dressing room and said, “It’s his 70th birthday weekend. The president just called. We can only give you 10 minutes or so.”

“But you promised me an hour,” I protested, “and I flew all the way from Hawaii.”

“Sorry. Things changed. Lots of people want to talk to B.B.”

So a few minutes into the interview, as he talked about the reason he suddenly ran away from a share-cropper’s job on a white man’s farm in Mississippi in 1946 – sharecropping being a form of indentured servitude – I did something I try never to do in an interview. I interrupted him.

“I’m sorry, Mr. King, I don’t mean to be rude, but I was told I have just a few minutes, and this is the story when you accidentally ran the tractor up under a (raised) house, and it knocked off the exhaust stack, and you got so scared you left without telling Mr. Johnson Barrett, and you and a friend hitchhiked up to Memphis with nothing but a few coins and a sausage in your pocket, right?”

He leaned back in surprise, eyes going wide. Then he smiled. “Oh, you know that story, do you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You did your research.” “I tried to.”

“Well, then …”

So a few minutes later when the road manager returned to say my time was up, B.B. waved him away, and I ended up spending 90 minutes with the great man, asking every question I’d scripted in my notebook, and then some. I also got to spend some time with him backstage after that New Year’s Eve concert and did two telephone interviews, including when he’d checked into a Los Angeles hotel and I had to ask the hotel operator for the room of “Cannonball Jackson.”

Oh, there are a couple of things I would like to ask B.B. now, if given the opportunity. I’d like to know why, at his age, he’s still touring. I’m guessing the response would be similar to what he said back in 1995 when I asked why he’d performed more than 300 nights a year for many years, including 342 onenighters in 1956, and at age 70 was on pace to do 250 shows – and this year will do 125 – making him literally the hardest-working man in show business (sorry, James Brown).

“I always had a band to support,” he said simply. (During those years of non-stop touring, by the way, he survived 17 traffic accidents.) And his fans need to hear him: “I choose to play the blues, and I think I can make people happy doing that. The blues is a tonic that’s good for you.”

And when we talked in Memphis, he said he’d recently gone semi-vegetarian after learning he had diabetes, and was feeling better than he had in years. I don’t have the exact quote, but it was along the lines of, “I want to keep on playing the blues for as long as I can.” Sixteen years later, I’d like to ask about some of his diet specifics and favorite dishes.

And I’d especially like to ask if, at 85, he looks at love any differently than he did as a young man writing and singing mostly about male-female relationships. Seeing how much my friend and former colleague Eddie Sherman – who is just about the same age as B.B. – is in love with his wife Patty, how happy he is and how she has helped him watch his diet and deal with his own diabetes, I’m guessing that B.B. would say something similar to what he did in that Memphis interview:

“I sing mostly about love. There’s hardly anybody alive that don’t want to be loved.”

When I asked if he knew something that Sigmund Freud did not – Freud once famously lamented, “What do women want?” – B.B. grew thoughtful:

“What does a woman want? Love. Respect. Most of them want to feel that they are special. And I think most of them want to be treated like a woman. I don’t think they really want anything more than we men do.”

Finally, I’d like to ask about his legacy. Again, I’m guessing it would sound a lot like an answer he gave me at his club, when I noted that he must be the only man in show business without an enemy in the world:

“It’s like the saying about the country boy – you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. Well, I’m like that with the church. A Japanese reporter asked me one of the best questions I ever thought about. See, I don’t drink, haven’t had a drink in eight or nine years, not even a beer. I might swear if I’m among a small group of friends, but otherwise I don’t use it. It’s not allowed on the stage. Nobody can ever say they heard me even say ‘damn.’ So this Japanese writer said, ‘You don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you don’t do a lot of things blues singers are known for doing, so it’s like a gospel singer singing the blues.’ Well, I am religious, not a Jesus freak as the kids say, but I do believe in God. I’m a guy who believes in treating you the way I want to be treated. That’s just B.B. King.

“And it’s not that I think I’m going to die tomorrow. You know, a lot of people get very religious in the end. But I’ve been like this most my life. I’m a blues man, but I’m a good man. I wasn’t trying to set no example. All my life I’ve just been that one person – I didn’t have no brothers or sisters to help me. So to stay out of trouble, you didn’t do anything to get people beatin’ up on you.”