With the King of the
Blues backstage at the Greek Theater,
Los Angeles CA. Photo: Joe Reiling
Blues is Like a Family
By T.E. Mattox
he first time you meet the King of the Blues, its
like greeting an old friend. He immediately puts you at ease with his
welcoming smile, gripping your hand and saying, have a seat, have
a seat. I had been listening to his music most of my life and
idolized him just like he was a member of my own family. So what better
way to begin a conversation than, Ive heard it said the
Blues is like a family.
Another thing, its kinda like a
tonic, its good for whatever ails you. (laughter) Whatever
youve got that troubles you, there is a part of blues music that
soothes whatever that ill may be.
And if anyone should
know, Riley B. King would. Known the world over as simply B.B. King,
this man has been the King of the Blues for the better part
of six decades. As an Ambassador and Elder Statesman of his genre, he
is very aware of how some perceive his role as a Bluesman and especially
how his actions can impact and influence others. And he is all too willing
to share his experiences with those who follow in his footsteps.
Yes, not only just because Im a blues
singer or blues musician, but I do feel there is responsibility that
I should always share, if you will. Because I personally feel that if
I show young people that I can play music without drugs, that I can
play music without many of the things that some people think you have
to have to get the feeling, if I can prove to them, which I have been
doing for quite some time, that I dont use anything other than
my fingers and my head
As he begins to laugh, he adds,
Whatever is left in it!
Quite some time is an understatement
of monumental proportions. You would probably need to travel to the
ends of the earth to find someone who hasnt heard or been affected
by B.B.s blues. So if you think the phrase, reach out and
touch someone is just about your phone service, better think again.
$12 dollars a night!!
Oh Boy, I started seeing stars.
- B.B. King
I believe it was Louis Armstrong who said,
Music is a universal language and everybody understands it.
So that part I believe is true. Another part, when you try to play music
to make people that are there, enjoy it. Whether its on the radio
or whether its in the audience or whether its on records,
however you do it, theyre the ones that are there and theyre
the ones you want to please. If you do that, every time you try to play,
I believe personally, that youre going to hit 90% of the people.
On this particular night and this particular show in
Los Angeles, I would estimate the average to be a great deal higher.
The man is relentless when it comes to touring and performing and has
been since those early days in and around the epicenter of the Blues;
Memphis to me, then and still is, the home
of the Blues as far as Im concerned. I know Chicago have taken
over and all that, but Memphis to me is the home of the Blues! And it
STILL is. It is trying to reclaim what it lost at one time, because
Beale Street was known for the college of blues. Muddy Waters
and a lot of guys who left Mississippi, same as I did, instead of stopping
in Memphis went on to Chicago. I stopped in Memphis.
A geographic magnet for early delta players, Memphis
was always the first stop. And as most blues enthusiasts know, B.B.
even got his name from the city. Thats where Riley B. King became
The Beale Street Blues Boy.
Hardly anybody that played the blues, didnt
stop in Memphis at one time or the other. Even after that time, even
today the British rock and Blues musicians have came through Memphis.
Im just happy, in America we have a music that is called Blues
and we can share it with the world.
B.B. King began sharing his music with the world with
the help of Sonny Boy Williamson II (aka Rice Miller.)
When I first came to Memphis Id been
listening to a guy, before I left Mississippi, called Sonny Boy Williamson.
I use to hear Sonny Boy and a group called the King Biscuit boys
(King Biscuit Time on KFFA radio) because they advertised for a flour
company called King Biscuit Flour. So it seemed to me like I knew them.
Isnt it funny that you watch TV or listen to radio and there are
certain performers or announcers that you come to feel like you really
know them, like your next door neighbor? (See opening paragraph)
Thats the way it was with me with Sonny Boy. So when I went
to Memphis I had a chance to meet him! Well, you know, its sort
of funny I felt he outta know me too, cause I knew him so
well. (laughing) Anyway I asked Sonny Boy if hed let me
go on his show and I had to audition for him. And he said, Yea,
you can do that number you played for me. So I went on his show
that day and as fate would have it, he had two dates for that night.
He had two places to play; one place where he played regularly for a
lady called Miss Annie at the 16th Street Grill. He didnt get
that much for it because it was kind of like a home base. If you aint
got no place to play, come on over here, always. But that night he had
another place they were gonna pay him maybe, oh, four or five
times of what he would have made that one night. So he called Miss Annie
and he said, Did you hear that boy on the radio today? She said
yes. He said, Well Im going to send him down in my place
tonight and I will be back tomorrow night. So she said fine. And
he looked at me and said, Boy, and you better play too, when you
get there! Sonny Boy was one of those big, tall guys, one of those guys,
like I dont want to tangle with him.
I went to her place that night and my job was
to play for the people that wasnt gambling. At that time West
Memphis was like a little Las Vegas and her place was a little gambling
establishment. The men, most of the men would gamble, a lot of the ladies
did not. The front part of the little café, they served food,
had a jukebox and everybody would dance. So if you had live music, like
which I was, they didnt have to put no money in the jukebox and
if you played and had a good beat, everybody would be dancin and
going on. And that would keep the people in the back, because they didnt
have to worry about who they brought with them. In other words, my job
was to keep them there.
So that night, the first time in my life, I made
$12 dollars, man! $12 dollars. I didnt know there was that much
money in the world
.for one night?? When Id been on the plantation
workin, I was making $22.50 a week. And what made me want to start
to play, some Saturday evenings go to another little town where my church
members couldnt hear me, (laughing) I sit on the corner
and sing. Sometimes on a Saturday evening Id make $23 or $24 dollars
which was more than Id make all week, but here this one night
Im making $12 dollars, cant believe it. So the lady said
to me, if you can get a job on the radio like Sonny Boy have
she said, then Ill let you work in his place, every night.
Ill give you six nights a week with one night off and $12 dollars
a night AND room and board.
Oh Boy, I started seeing stars. All kind of
money jumping in my pocket, oh Lord, looky here, what has happened to
Riley B. King?
Memphis radio was about to become the next rung on B.B.s
Well, I learned then that there was a newly
bought radio station by two young men. One was named Bert Ferguson,
the other was John Pepper, and they had just bought a Country - Western
station, from what I understand, at that time, was about 25 or 50 watts.
A small radio station and they had turned it into an all black operated
station. And it was just starting to roll. It was the first station
of that kind in North America. So that day I went over there and I saw
this black guy sitting up in the window and I watched this guy and when
the red light went off, I banged on this picture window. So he came
up to the window and opened the door and says, what can I do for
you young fellow? I say, I want to make a record and I want
to go on the radio. (laughing) And Im wet, man. It
had been rainin and Id walked about two or three miles,
with my guitar on my back. You got a way, turn your guitar, turn the
face with the strings to your back to let the wind and the rain hit
the other parts so it dont harm it, see?
So, he looked at me and Im wet as a rat, man.
So, he called Mr Ferguson, one of the owners and says, we got
this boy out here and he wants to make a record and go on the radio,
he said. I told him we dont make records but maybe we can do something
about the radio. And Mr. Ferguson, even today a real shrewd guy,
hes one of the nicest men I ever met. He looked at me and he said,
Come on in, son and maybe we can do something.
And that VERY day, they put me on the radio with
a product that was competitive to Sonny Boy, the guy that first put
me on the radio. He advertised for a tonic called, Hadacol.
That very day they was just putting in the process, a new tonic that
they was gonna advertise. This new product was called Pepticon.
So now he said, maybe we can use him, let me hear
you. I started to playing, man. Whatever it was I played, they said,
Oh yeah, this is great. Me and my acoustic guitar, I didnt
have an electric guitar at the time. Well, as fate would have it, they
said, weve got to have a jingle for it. So I started
rattling my little brains trying to figure out what were gonna
do. And I came with something that went like this, (slapping time
and breaking into song
) Pepticon sure is good, Pepticon
sure is good, you can get it anywhere
in your neighborhood.
They said thats it, thats it. (laughing)
So I went on by myself doing ten minutes a day. I
did that for about a month, ten minutes a day then I started to be very
popular. Then they gave me fifteen minutes a day. Then I hired a trio
and that was the first beginning of the BB King group. And about a month
or so later, one of the disc jockeys left, so Mr. Ferguson said, B,
youre very popular, howd you like to be a disc jockey?
I said, Yes
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!!! (laughing)
So they started training me to be a disc jockey and
finally one day Mr. Ferguson came in, looked at me and said, B
he said, you know something? I said, What is it, Mr.
Ferguson? He said, Youre gonna be very popular,
youre gonna be a good disc jockey, but youll never learn
to TALK! (laughing) So now, whenever I screw up a word,
I smile and say, You were right, Mr. Ferguson. (laughing)
When BB King first started touring, his path was littered
with jukes, dance halls, rowdy crowds, and assorted wildness. Playing
in those old converted barns, roadhouses, and bars back in the day always
had a price. The cost could range from your rent money or your instruments,
to the more personal affronts involving your girl or your next breath.
Well, the club Im thinking about wasnt
so rowdy, but I did thank God I got out of there alive. This place was
in Twist, Arkansas. This is where my guitar got the name, where I named
my guitar Lucille. This place we used to play quite often
and it used to get quite cold there, in Twist. They used to take what
looked like a big garbage pail and set it in the middle of the floor,
half fill it with kerosene, light that fuel and thats what we
used for heat in winter.
Im thinking wheres the Fire Marshall and
OSHA when you really need them?
People would usually dance around it and never
disturb it. But this one night, two guys start to fight and one of them
knocked the other over on this container. When he did, it spilled on
the floor. Now, when it spilled it looked like a river of fire, so everybody
started running for the front door, including B.B. King!
But when I got on the outside, Id realized
then I left my guitar and went back for it. When I did, the building
was a wooden building and it started to collapse around me. I almost
lost my life trying to save it. The next morning we found that these
two guys were fighting about a lady that worked in the nightclub. I
never did meet her, but I learned that her name was Lucille. And I named
my guitar Lucille, to remind me to never do a thing like that again.
But that was the one place that I was so happy that I did get out alive.
Although B.B never refers to himself as the King
of the Blues, everyone else on the planet does. But when he speaks
of his life and the music he loves there remains little doubt, royalty
is in our midst.
Blues to me, I think of it like beauty, beauty
lies in the eyes of the beholder. Blues to me is life. As weve
lived it in the past, as were living it today and as I believe,
well live it tomorrow. Because it has to do with people, places
and things, and is good for whatever ails you.
Thank you, Mr. King. Im feeling better already.
By the way, I want to say one thing more in
terms of that tonic. We used to sell tons of it. And it took me years
to find out why so many of the older people bought it, especially church
members. About four or five years ago somebody sent me a bottle of it.
They dont sell it anymore, but somebody sent me a bottle that
they kept. And I found out it was 12 percent alcohol. (laughing)
I guess now we know why you were so POPULAR.
(still laughing) I guess youre right!