From his humble roots as a Delta sharecropper to his current status as king of the blues and frequent guest of President Clinton, B.B. King and his trusty Gibson Lucille have lived large and lived small. But whether the crowd was a few drunks on a rainy night or a throng of thousands hanging onto his every note, one thing has remained the same: It's the music that matters, and the seventy-four-year-old legend puts his heart on the line by playing live nearly every night of the year to prove it.
There's simply no way to overestimate the impact King has had on popular music. His guitar style is an international trademark. The wine-mellow bends, popping trills, quavering highs and stinging attack notes are etched on the brain of everyone who's turned on a radio in the past half century. His singing voice, gruff and warm at the same time, rumbles like an old V8 as he dispenses pearls of wisdom or turns a sharp-witted phrase.
Understanding this, it makes sense that King, in his last recorded gesture of this millennium, chose to focus the spotlight on the underappreciated architect of R&B and rock & roll, Louis Jordan. The way B.B. sees it, Let the Good Times Roll is just his way of correcting a little oversight -- and having a damn good time in the process. In putting his own spin on the late sax and vocal great's signature tunes like "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" and "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens," King raises the roof higher than a Saturday night fish fry and demonstrates that good music has no expiration date. It just takes a good interpreter to bring it back to life.
Guitar.com recently caught up with King between West Coast dates to get his thoughts on Jordan, modern music, guitar expression and the fate of the blues in the next millennium.
Guitar.com: What made you decide to make this Louis Jordan record?
B.B. King: Well, back in the '40s, when I was a very young boy, I used to hear Louis Jordan often. In the '40s and early '50s he was a leader in what he did and he never got the recognition I thought he should have had. In the '60s I opened some shows for him before he died, and I liked the man. I think he was one of the greats that made a lot of the music be what it is today. A lot of kids are playing his music today and don't know it. But they hear it from others.
Guitar.com: You've said that you think he was one of the first rappers.
King: Yes, I do believe that. He just wasn't rude. He didn't use dirty lyrics. But what he had was tasty.
Guitar.com: The guitar kind of plays back seat on this album. Was that an adjustment for you?
King: You want to hear one with guitars, [check out] "Ain't That Just Like a Woman." Listen to that, you'll hear guitar. And good guitar on it. It's just that one that I can think of, but there were others.
Guitar.com: Do you remember the first guitar that you got?
King: Yes. It was a little red Stella guitar.
Guitar.com: Was that an acoustic?
King: Ha ha! Yes, I lived in the country, we didn't have electricity. [laughs] We didn't have electricity in the area where I grew up out in the Delta of Mississippi.
Guitar.com: Where did you get that guitar?
King: I bought it from somebody in the area.
Guitar.com: Why did you decide to buy a guitar in the first place?
King: Well, I didn't have one.
Guitar.com: But you could have picked up any instrument, right?
King: In the country, you kidding? We didn't have electricity and you thought we had music stores? [laughs] No my friend, you're way off! No, I couldn't have played anything else. A guitar was about as cheap as anything else I could get, and for me at that time that was a lot of money. I could've played harmonica, but who wants to play harmonica after everybody else is playing it?
Guitar.com: Do you remember what you paid for it?
King: Yeah, it cost $15.
Guitar.com: Was money that you scrimped and saved?
King: No, I got my boss to pay for it for me. I was making $15 a month at the time. So my boss paid for it, took half of it out the first month, half the second month.
Guitar.com: Where were you working at the time?
King: On the plantation. I was born on the plantation, I lived in the country.
Guitar.com: How old were you at this point?
King: About twelve.
Guitar.com: How long did you play acoustic?
King: Well, I played it until we moved out of the country. I moved into town, then I got an electric one. Well, it wasn't actually an electric one -- I got another [acoustic] guitar and put a D'Armond pickup on it that electrified it.
Guitar.com: Did the electric turn you on right away?
King: Oh yes, I'd heard them, but I'd never had one.
Guitar.com: Was there a specific moment that you tapped into your tone?
King: Not really. I don't know how I got the tone. Let me see if I can explain it. I usually set the controls according to the way that I'm listening for a sound. My guitar is stereo; it has the two speakers and I can play them independent of each other or I can play them together. So I try to mix them to where they sound good to me. I don't know if it sounds good to others, but to me. And I do that from the guitar, not from the amp. I don't know when it started. It's been years ago, I guess. I can't hear lows so well, so I usually play with a lot of treble, and that started a long time ago. When I play something that doesn't sound good to me, then I try something else.
Guitar.com: You play more notes than chords.
King: Well, I'm not very good with chords. The early parts of my playing, they always pushed me out front to play solos. I never did get a chance to play much with a rhythm section as a whole, so I guess being lazy after that I just never did practice much playing chords.
Guitar.com: You get by pretty well without them.
King: Well, I guess I have. Been doing it for fifty years.
Guitar.com: Who among the current crop of guitar players are you a fan of?
King: All of them. I haven't heard any of them play something that I didn't wish that I could play myself. They all are very good.
Guitar.com: Do you see yourself in their playing at all, how you've influenced them?
King: No. I think they all are themselves.
Guitar.com: Do you have any thoughts on the blues as we reach the year 2000? Do you think it will keep going strong?
King: I believe it will. It's gone the last decade and the last millennium. The blues been going on for more than a hundred years. If it's gone that long, I think it'll go another one.