Interview by Joe Smith
Joe sat down with B.B. King in September 1986. He was writing Off the Record–his oral history of rock and roll. Smith interviewed more than 240 music artists and executives from 1986-88. Then in 2012, he donated more than 230 hours of interviews on cassette tapes to the Library of Congress. Listen to the full interview catalog.
The Animated Transcript
I look at an audience kind of like meeting my in-laws for the first time. You want to be yourself, but you still want to be somebody that they like. When I go on the stage each night, I try my best to outguess my audience, I like to feel in most cases, like I’m a big guy with long rubber arms that I can reach around my audience and Swing and sway with them. Move them with me. Many nights I can’t. Many nights I can’t, but you do like a good manager do with a baseball team. You keep pulling pitchers …
Yeah, keep trying. [laughter]
How did that guitar gets its name?
I used to play a place in Twist, Arkansas. Still there, Twist, Arkansas. They used to have a little nightclub there that we played quite often. It used to get quite cold in Twist. They used to take something looked like a big garbage pail and set it in the middle of the floor, half fill it with kerosene, and would light that fuel and that’s what we used for heat. Generally, the people would dance around it and they wouldn’t disturb this container. This particular night, two guys started to fighting and one of ’em knocked the other one over on this container.
When they did, it spilled on the floor. Now it was already burning, so when it spilled, it looked like a river of fire. Everybody ran for the front door including yours truly. But when I got on the outside, then I realized that I’d left my guitar inside. I went back for it. The building was a wooden building and it was burning so fast when I got my guitar, it started to collapse around me. So I almost lost my life trying to save the guitar. Well the next morning we found that these two guys was fighting about a lady. I never did meet the lady, I never did meet the lady, but I learned that her name was Lucille so I named my guitar Lucille to remind me not to do a thing like that again. [laughs]
The early years when I was starting, blues player, you wasn’t always welcome in a lot of the other places. People usually have preconceived ideas about blues music. They always feel that it’s depressing and that it’s just something that a guy sit out on a stool, grab a guitar, and just start singing or mumbling or whatever.
You came out of relatively hard times, a lot of blues players did. Is it necessary to have hard times to reflect that music? To…
No, it’s not. It helps though. [laughs]
Hard times don’t necessarily mean being poor all the time. I’ve known people that was a part of a family and always feel that the family likes everybody else but them. That hurts and that’s as deep a hurt as you can possibly get. I’ve known people that would have problems with their love life. This is kind of how blues began, out of feeling misused, mistreated, feeling like they had nobody to turn to. Blues don’t necessarily have to be sung by a person that came from Mississippi as I did because there are people having problems all over the world.
I don’t like to feel that I owe anything. I like to feel that I pay my own way, no free lunch. When people give me all these great compliments, I thank them, but still go back to my room and practice. A lot of times I say to myself, “I wished I could be worthy of all the compliments that people give me sometimes.” I’m not inventing anything that’s going to stop cancer or muscular dystrophy or anything, but I like to feel that my time and talent is always there for the people that need it. When someone do say something negative, most times I think about it, but it don’t bother me that much.
You know who you are.
I like to think that I do.
Some of my friends would tell me from time to time, Eric Clapton said this, or Jimi Hendrix said this. I spoke with John Lennon once after I had seen in, I believe it was Life Magazine, where people were asking questions, “say, what is it you would like to do?” One of his things was to play guitar like B.B. King. That’s when I started to find that a lot of the young musicians had been listening to me. I didn’t know and, for the life of me, sometimes still wonder why.I’ve had my feelings of doubt, I think, in music, but to think that there are people, that learned to play by listening to my music, those dark days wasn’t dark after all.
The Full Interview