Before his passing on May 14, 2015, B.B. King lived 89 full years and still performed up to 250 gigs a year around the world. Where caught up with him in Paris, France, years ago to talk about music, memories and, of course, his love for Memphis. This is our tribute to the legend, the icon, the man who tilted the world on its axis with every riff and rhythm on his world-famous axe, Lucille.
When you first started your career in music, you actually left Memphis to go back to Mississippi. What brought you back?
Well, I had to get back to Memphis, to Beale Street, because that was like heaven for a young musician. Memphis and Beale Street had some of the best blues and jazz players in the world. It was my college. It was where I got my first education in music and life.
How does the Memphis music scene differ today from when you were starting out?
Believe it or not, it was a happenin’ place back in the 1940s. It was more of a local’s place where people might travel from Mississippi or Arkansas to come, but now you see people from all over the world coming for the music. It’s great!
“B.B.” is short for “Beale Street Blues Boy.” How did you get the nickname?
I used to compete in this show they had at the New Daisy Theatre on Saturday nights on Beale Street hosted by Rufus Thomas. I had no money at the time, and the winner got $2. I won a lot, and the people started calling me that “Beale Street Blues Boy” or just “Blues Boy King.” They later shortened it to B.B., and I’ve had it ever since.
Speaking of nicknames, how did your guitar get the nickname “Lucille?” And how many Lucilles do you own? What type of guitar is she?
In 1949, I was playing over in Twist, Arkansas, at a juke joint and it was cold. They used to heat the place by lighting kerosene in a barrel. Well, two guys got into a fight over a woman and knocked over the barrel and the place went up in flames while I was on stage. I was so panicked I ran outside and left my guitar on stage. It was my only guitar so I crawled back in and got it as the place burned. Two people died in the fire. I found out that the guys were fighting over a woman named Lucille so I named my guitar Lucille. Lucille is a Gibson guitar, and it is a semi-hollow body with no sound holes. It is manufactured in Nashville and Memphis, and I have played a number of them over my 63-year career.
You have played in excess of 15,000 performances, and you’re still averaging 250 live gigs a year. What keeps you going?
I love the people. They make me feel so good. Sometimes I cannot believe it, particularly in Prague or Budapest or other places where they don’t speak English, and I go on stage and look out at 10,000 people there to see me. It makes me feel great. I love to perform. I don’t plan on retiring.
Listen: B.B. King performing "The Thrill Is Gone"
Who were your biggest early influences and with which performers would you still love to work?
There have been a number of influences, but you could say these for sure: T-Bone Walker, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Elmore James, Bukka White, Lowell Fuson, Lonnie Johnson, and Robert Lockwood Jr. With regard to whom I would like to work with, I like all artists but several have been special to me. Bono of U2 is wonderful. Eric Clapton is very special to work with. The album he did with me, “Riding With the King,” is special to me. A fine guitarist that I just jammed with in Montreux who I consider a superstar is George Benson. He is great. I’d like to work with him. Someone that I have always loved is Willie Nelson. He wrote my favorite song, “You Were Always on My Mind.” Two of my favorite ladies who are great guitarists and who I love working with are Bonnie Raitt and the young artist Susan Tedeschi.
Your name is synonymous with Beale Street and Memphis. How much time do you actually spend there?
I love Memphis and I spend as much time as I can there for an 83-year-old who is still touring most of the time. I am there as often as time permits me to get there and to Indianola, Mississippi, which is home. I have family in both places and I play at my home club, B.B. King’s Blues Club, at least twice a year.
What are some of your favorite things about the city?
I love the people. I love the progress that I see Memphis has made over the years. I love the soul of Memphis. It is unlike any place on earth. When I see what we have helped accomplish downtown and on Beale Street in the last 20 years, it’s amazing. Most people don’t travel to as many places as I do, but let me tell you that Memphis is a special place.
What are three things that every visitor to the city must do?
Describe your perfect day.
Perfect day? Well I am a nighttime person so my perfect day would start at about 11 am at a nice, peaceful breakfast. I would spend time with close friends during the early afternoon, then take a nap. After I wake up, I would prepare to go to the performance hall with my band, and walk out onto the stage where I look out into a sold-out audience, give everything I have for two hours on stage, and enjoy the applause and the positive energy. I would then have a nice dinner and go to bed.
B.B. King’s Blues Club showcases some of the best blues talent in Memphis. What can people expect when they go there?
Well, nothing makes me prouder than driving past Beale Street and seeing that big neon sign that says B.B. King’s Blues Club. An evening at B.B. King’s would include great food, friendly people, great blues music and what I call Southern-soul music that gets people dancing. I was at the club last month just for fun, and man there was some great dancing going on. I didn’t want to leave!
What is your favorite thing on the menu?
My favorite dish at B.B. King’s is catfish. However, you shouldn’t leave Memphis without sampling our ribs. My management tells me we were voted in the top three places in Memphis. And top three for ribs in Memphis is really good.
Where else do you like to eat when you’re in Memphis?
Where else do you like to go to hear good blues in Memphis?
Most of my hang-outs are gone, but I do like some of the other clubs on Beale that play blues, like Rum Boogie Café and Kings Palace Cafe. There is a neighborhood blues club called Wild Bill’s that I like also.
In your youth in Mississippi, you played street corners for dimes. What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
I have been very lucky to say the least, and I would have to say that my biggest accomplishment is the fact that I’m still playing and creating music at 83. I hope my greatest accomplishment is still ahead of me.
The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center recently opened in your hometown of Indianola, Miss. Tell us about it.
The museum in Indianola is one of the most special things that anyone has ever done for me. This was accomplished through the efforts of a number of people but I want to thank Bill McPherson, Alan Hammonds, Carol Puckett and James Barksdale for making it a reality. You have to see the museum to believe it, but it is my life story. It is about the struggles and triumphs — from being born in the Mississippi Delta in 1925 with nothing to performing around the world for people like presidents and the pope. It is a wonderful blessing to me.
You have lived with Type II Diabetes for 20 years — what would you say to those struggling with this condition?
I would say that if you keep your body in shape and eat well, you can live a normal, long life. Also, I don’t drink or smoke and I get plenty of rest.
You’ve been quoted as saying: “Red, white, black, brown or yellow, rich or poor, we all have the blues.” Why do the blues speak to people so much?
The blues is real music. It is about expressing your feelings through music and touching people. I have been blessed to be able to touch a lot of people through my music, which is my true love.