BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
We could clear the dictionary of superlatives discussing
the colossal talent of B.B. King and his indelible mark on
blues, rock 'n' roll, even jazz. A singer, a songwriter and
a guitarist beyond compare, King has been a forceful
presence in music for more than half a century, and at 76
years young the old master is still recording, still
touring — despite occasional injuries, like the fractured
leg he suffered two weeks ago falling from his tour bus
steps — even hawking Whoppers in TV commercials, somehow
without sacrificing an ounce of his legendary dignity and
We might also assume that King achieved such legendary
status by learning from the right people. Growing up in
Mississippi, King heard certain blues guitarists who fired
him up, and the excitement encouraged him to step out of
his street-corner gospel quartets and pick up an old
guitar. But even though he has been described by Rolling
Stone magazine as "a great consolidator of styles," King,
with his trademark humility in an interview this week, said
he couldn't then and still can't play as good as his
"I could never play like my idols. I wanted to. But I
couldn't do what they did, so I couldn't really take that
and do something else with it. People say I borrowed this
and I borrowed that and then made it all into my own thing.
All I ever had was my own thing to begin with," King said.
Indeed, in interviewing an artist the most cliched
question to ask is, "Who influenced you?" But when
approaching a legend as large as King, in a career that has
become its own undeniable influence, we couldn't help but
come back to that discussion. Where, indeed, did this
franchise begin, and are these the same roots sprouting
"Well, it wasn't Robert Johnson, let me say," King said. "A
lot of kids think Robert Johnson was the greatest blues
guitarist ever. I don't agree. Lonnie Johnson was much
better. And there was a guy born in Texas, born blind,
called Lemon Jefferson. People called him Blind Lemon
Jefferson. He was another idol. I liked jazz, too. Charlie
Christian — born right there in Oklahoma — he was great,
another favorite. Barney Kessel (another Oklahoman) said he
was the greatest jazz guitarist ever, and I trust him
because he's the greatest ever. I heard a French gypsy named Django
Reinhardt, and then T-Bone Walker playing electric guitar.
We called what he did single-string. This is the stuff that
made me fall in love with the guitar."
"Lookie here, I've got a lot of these records right here
in my room today."
"I still can't play like any of 'em.
"I wish I could explain it. I wish I could say what they
did that got me. Each one of them had something that seemed
to go through me like a sword. I don't know how to explain
it. It's something that happens and you just know, you know
on some spiritual level, that this was meant for you to
hear. It's like a person telling a story — each one of 'em
had a punch line. You get it or you don't. And I got it. I
A lot of blues players have come along during the 54
years King has been recording and touring, but few of them,
he said, have pierced him the way those original players
did. King's ever-expanding influence has brought many of
them to his throne. He's recorded with countless blues
stars, frequently with his old buddy and current opening
act Bobby "Blue" Bland, and with such figures as John Lee
Hooker, Etta James, Mick Jagger, Robert Cray, Willie
Nelson, Van Morrison, Albert Collins, even rapper Heavy D.
"The young guys don't get me the same way," he said.
"They're always playing something I wish I could play, and
they play things I can't play. I learn from them, but I
don't get that something I got from the other guys."
He speaks wistfully of his collaborations with Eric
Clapton, most recently the "Riding With the King" album. In
fact, that's the only record of King's in the last few
years that gets much airplay.
"Blues isn't on the radio much," King said. "Every city has
some station that plays the blues late at night. I met one
fellow once who said, 'B.B., every Saturday night after 12
we play a whole hour of blues.' And I said, 'Well, what do
you do with the other 23 hours?' ... Most of the time I
hear blues on the radio it's on a college station."
Ironically, maybe the most singular event in King's
development as a guitarist was his landing a job as a disc
jockey in the late '40s at WDIA in Memphis. He'd already
begun to work as a musician — playing at a cafe in West
Memphis, Ark., with the likes of Bobby Bland and pianist
Johnny Ace — so as a DJ he gained a reputation for playing
the hippest records around. As a bonus for listeners, King
sometimes would play along with the records on the air,
publicizing his own personal guitar lessons.
Years later, at the dawn of the '90s, King attached his
name and status to a nightclub on Beale Street in Memphis,
largely as a way to buttress the legacy of Memphis blues
that had set him so firmly on the path to stardom and
"Beale Street was down to nothing, and some people wanted
to help bring it back. I travel around the world, and
people think Chicago is the home of the blues. Now Chicago
did a lot to help blues players — they opened their doors
and hearts to Muddy Waters and many like him — but
personally I think Memphis is the home of the blues and
always was," King said. "Most of the original blues players
were born in Mississippi and moved to Memphis and then went
many different ways. I was one of them. And people had
started to forget."
You wanna talk influence? King's regular gigs in the
late '40s on Beale Street convinced Sam Phillips, then an
engineer at another Memphis radio station and at the
opulent Peabody Hotel, to open his first recording studio.
King was one of his first clients in 1950, recording his
first records. Phillips went on to be the most important
producer in the history of rock and soul, starting Sun
Records and launching Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Roy
The B.B. King Blues Club is now the cornerstone of the
gentrified Beale Street, and the success of the club has
led to three more openings — in New York City; Universal
City, Calif.; and in the Foxwood Indian casino in
Connecticut — with plans to open a total of 10 across the
"If I live long enough, maybe I'll see all 10. I'm really
proud of them," King said. Then he sighed. "I've been pretty
good through the years. I've lived a pretty good life.
Someday they'll be blues without B.B. King around, and I
doubt you'll miss me that much. But I've done OK."
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Brady Theater, 105 W. Brady St.
Admission: Sold Out
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.