B.B. King

It's Good to be King
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It's Good to be King

Input List: B.B. King Input Instrument Microphone

It's an early June evening in Michigan, but it feels more like late August. The late-afternoon sunshine and stifling humidity has the crowd gathered at the Clio Area Amphitheater mopping its collective brow. A few try to take advantage of the shade offered by some nearby trees while the line at the beverage stand grows longer and longer. Fortunately for the sweaty assemblage, nightfall is imminent.

Within a roped-off section of grass adjacent to the backstage door, a group of people jockey for position. Individually, they defy specific characterization. There are about 60 of them — black and white, male and female, young and old. Many hold cameras; others carry old album covers and Sharpie pens. They patiently wait as if in anticipation of a lunar eclipse, oblivious of the heat, all hoping for a special moment with the object of their affection: B.B. King.

More than five decades after leaving his Mississippi home for a life on the road, the blues guitar legend has transcended the music genre with which he is so readily associated. Calling him the King of the Blues no longer seems to do him justice; he's something bigger: an American icon and a figure for the ages. He's toured the world many times, appeared in 89 countries, and played for U.S. presidents and numerous international dignitaries. Along the way, King has crossed paths with virtually everyone worth including in a history of the late 20th century.

He could just as easily be called the “King of the Road” or maybe “King of the One-Night Stand.” He's played approximately 20,000 of them — no one really knows for sure — and in the process has become the only authentic blues player in history to enjoy rock-star status.


At this moment, however, sitting in the back of his home — a deluxe, customized motor coach that takes him just about everywhere — King is perspiring. Tiny beads of sweat trickle down his weathered 75-year-old face. “I usually don't keep much air going back here,” he says, pointing to his throat, noting that the humidity better enables him to sing. “Besides, if I ever started using it, I'd put the air-conditioning people out of business.”

His band arrived in a separate bus about 25 minutes ago. King just woke up and will go on in less than an hour. More than 2,000 people are already in their seats. The opening act, Bobby “Blue” Bland, is warming up the crowd. King's day is just beginning.

As he sits, his attention focuses for a moment on a laptop resting on a small table. The computer is one of several high-tech gadgets in this ultrahumid office space, the closed-off back compartment of an otherwise cool and comfortable tour bus. A quick glance around the room also reveals a color television with a DVD player, a stereo system with stacks of CDs, and a portable disc player with a pair of high-fidelity headphones. Below the wall-mounted TV monitor lie two bags stuffed with fan mail.

This bus — please pardon the pun — is fit for a king and deservedly so. Because King spends his life on the road, he might as well travel in style. Tonight it's Clio. Tomorrow it's Interlochen, then Kalamazoo. South Bend and Fort Wayne, Indiana, are after that. Then he's off to Europe. King's musical odyssey has lasted a lifetime, and it's a long way from being completed. Although tonight's gig is hardly glamorous (the simplicity of the place conjures images of a county fair), King insists that his audience will get the best he's got.

“I get up for every gig just as easy,” he says, slightly adjusting a window shade to his right. “Some nights are harder, yes. Some nights you're not as accepted as well as you'd like to be. But I do my best every night that I go out. And many nights, my best is not as good as I'd like it to be. But it's still the best I can do for them. I started that from the beginning. I don't know how to go out and be slack onstage. I don't know how to do that. I've always given all, everything I've got, every bit.”


Given his current status, it's easy to forget that, for a long time, King had to fight for every dollar that passed through his hands. The great-grandson of slaves, Riley B. King was born in 1925 on a cotton plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a stone's throw from the town of Indianola.

It's a place where cotton is king. If there's anything in the world that King knows better than the blues, it's cotton. Throughout his teenage years, following the death of his mother, the crop sustained him. King still remembers the routine of guiding a mule through acres of land, turning over the earth and preparing for planting. Once the hot Delta sun made the pillowy white crop blossom, he'd pick it as though there was no tomorrow. Working from daybreak until dusk, he could pltonmore than 500 pounds, earning $1.75 for the day's work.

For King, cotton was not just a means of survival; it was a coping mechanism in times of anguish, especially after the deaths of two of the most important people in the young man's life: his mother and grandmother. The picking process, he has said, occupied his mind and eased the pain he felt inside — much like the blues would in future years.

Like many of his generation, King developed his love of music through the church. He was first inspired by a reverend named Archie Fair, who captivated the young King with a rounded hollowbody electric guitar that he kept near his pulpit. King, soon to be drawn to the electric sound of T-Bone Walker and already a fan of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, had never before held an electric guitar — but he quickly decided that he wanted one.

King made his first guitar — a contraption comprising a broom handle and a strand of wire — before eventually buying a cherry-red Stella acoustic for $15 in 1937. The price was equivalent to two months' salary at the plantation where King worked, but he didn't care. Soon after, he began to learn chords and scales from a 50-cent instruction book ordered from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. Today when he talks about the incredible technological advances of the past decade, he wonders how his musical upbringing might have been different had he been born in another era.

“I think that, with the new equipment and everything that one has to tutor themselves with today,” he says, “it gives them a chance to learn. Most young people are really honest about learning. It took me years and years to learn the same things. I call my plan ‘trial and error.'' But today they don't always have to make the errors, because there are so many good things they can use to tutor themselves.” (King himself dabbles with digital recording and sequencing, at home and on the road.)

During King's initial learning period, the 1930s and '40s, his ears were his guide. His affinity for music was hardly limited to other guitarists. Horn players were just as important. Louis Jordan, an influential jump-style saxophonist popular in the '40s and '50s, is even the inspiration for King's latest release, Let the Good Times Roll: The Music of Louis Jordan (MCA).

“He was, to me, a different style of blues,” he says of Jordan — a chief influence who was, as King points out, also a blues singer. “Sophisticated somewhat, a type of blues that nobody did but him. He was a showman as well. His presence onstage was fantastic to me. I thought, and still do, that he never got the recognition he deserved, even though he was very popular. He was one of the first crossover people. Everything he recorded was bought by blacks and whites.”

By the early 1940s, King knew that he wanted to do two things: travel and make music. He initially started busking on the streets of Indianola but soon learned a valuable marketing lesson — the gospel tunes he played were well received by passersby, but tips unfortunately came in the form of praise and pats on the back, not loose change. Once King changed his tune (literally) and began singing about things to which everyone could relate, most notably the dynamics of man-woman relationships, his fortune quickly changed. In just eight hours on the streets of Indianola, for example, he could clear $10 or more. Making music was more lucrative and less time-consuming than picking cotton, and the regimented routine improved King's chops and confidence considerably.

In 1947 the 22-year-old decided to hit the road. With his guitar and $2.50 in his pocket, he hitchhiked up Highway 49 to the Promised Land, otherwise known as Memphis, Tennessee. Once there, King touched base with his cousin Bukka White, one of the most highly regarded acoustic bluesmen of his era. White helped King learn the ropes around Memphis, a burgeoning haven for black musicians. His tutelage ultimately proved to be pivotal.

The next year, King made an unannounced visit to KWEM radio in West Memphis. He asked to see Sonny Boy Williamson and nervously inquired of the legendary harmonica player about singing on his popular King Biscuit Flour Hour radio program, a hit throughout the South. King auditioned on the spot, and his version of “Blues at Sunrise” was a success. It led to a steady gig at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in Memphis. Next came his own radio show at Memphis's WDIA, where Riley King became “Blues Boy,” eventually shortened to “B.B.” Although King loved the radio, he was simultaneously finding more and more success as a local performer. He quickly realized that, despite the wonderful things Memphis had to offer, there was even more for him beyond its limits. The world was waiting.


They're waiting tonight in Clio, and soon they'll experience the fruit of King's labor, the ultimate by-product of those days playing for dimes. They'll hear the remarkable sounds that he routinely coaxes from his signature black Gibson semihollowbody — better known as Lucille — an instrument that, in his hands, can emulate the human voice with jaw-dropping clarity and precision.

By his own admission, King hasn't picked up Lucille in three days. He's had a rare break of late=60and tonight is his first gig in nearly two weeks. Even when he's off the road, however, he still practices diligently. “I've never practiced like I should,” he quips. “Never have, or other than that I would have been a pretty good guitar player!”

King didn't model his style on any one musician's. With more than 50 albums in his recorded output, it's become clear by now that his influences have come from everywhere. His unique sound and playing style evolved not because he didn't want to copy his heroes but because he discovered that he couldn't (he even admits that he tried). King still considers himself a student of the guitar, and a disciple of T-Bone Walker at that. But many others played a role: King found the beauty of diminished chords and jazzy runs in the playing of Charlie Christian, who provided a listening experience that took him outside of the box of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson. Django Reinhardt, the great gypsy guitarist, was another influence. Count Basie helped awaken King to the sounds of swing. Hawaiian music and the beautiful wail of country-and-western's pedal steel also helped King hone that twangy vibrato he's made his own.

But whether the sounds are happy or sad, naughty or nice, King's trademark style allows him to cover the spectrum of human emotion without uttering an actual word. That ability is at the core of his being as a musician, for the man who stuttered as a child has historically let his guitar do the talking. The opportunity to take the stage and communicate directly is therefore each day's biggest payoff.

“One of the things I've tried to do is say, ‘My name is B.B. King. I'm here to entertain you. I hope you like what I got,''” he says. “And that's the way I start. I start like that, and my heart is in it. It's just like you meeting a person that seems to be nice. You want to think of this person as a friend, and hopefully one day you'll be very tight, you know. That's the way I go on.”


By the time King finally takes the stage, darkness has arrived. Fireflies pulse against the night sky, and the humidity has mercifully dissipated. His first-rate backing band (which consists of keyboards, guitar, bass, trumpet, and baritone and tenor saxophones) takes the stage at about 9:30. Ten minutes later, halfway into the second warm-up tune, the man himself steps off his tour bus, dressed in tuxedo pants and a multihued silk shirt. He reaches over the rope to shake a few hands as the flashbulbs pop. He signs no autographs and enters the stage through the back door. Once he appears onstage, the crowd roars, jumping to their feet.

1 kick beyerdynamic M 88 2 snare Shure SM57 3 hi-hat AKG C 451 or Shure SM81 4 rack tom Sennheiser MD 421 5 rack tom Sennheiser MD 421 6 floor tom Sennheiser MD 421 7 floor tom Sennheiser MD 421 8 left overhead AKG C 451 or Shure SM81 9 right overhead AKG C 451 or Shure SM81 10 bass Countryman DI 11 rhythm guitar Shure SM57 12 Leslie high Shure SM58 13 Leslie low Shure SM58 14 piano high AKG C 414 (use DI for Yamaha CP80) 15 piano low AKG C 414 (use DI for Yamaha CP80) 16 Yamaha DX7 Countryman DI 17 trumpet Shure SM57 18 trumpet Shure SM57 19 tenor sax Shure SM57 20 tenor sax Shure SM57 21 King's guitar Shure SM57 22 King's vocal Shure SM58 This input list shows the preferred mics for King's band, with alternate choices where applicable.

“In the last eight or ten years, the people give me the spirit before I even hit a note,” King says. “It's a rare night for me to go onstage and the people don't stand when I'm called onstage. That, in some way, motivates my thinking, ‘God, what can I do for these people?'' So I'm hot when they do that; I'm ready to go. It seems to me that they honor me by standing.”

King waves to the audience and unapologetically sits down. (“After more than 50 years of standing, I think I've earned a seat,” he says later.) He launches into “Let the Good Times Roll” and “I'll Survive” before running through a number of other staples, his guitar sound unmistakable throughout. The band is so tight, the members give the feeling that they've done this, well, a few thousand times.

“Everybody in my band knows what I'm going to do,” King says. “I have a set show. If you was on Broadway, you got to do a set show every night. But I tell them all, ‘Never play anything just because it's there to be played.'' For example, when I recorded ‘The Thrill Is Gone'' [in 1970], I never tried to play that song like I did when I recorded it. Never! Never! Because I don't feel like I did when I made it. So play it tonight like you feel it! And that's what I tell my band about anything we do: Play it tonight like you feel it tonight. I have no standards but to do the best you can.”


Without a doubt, no one honors spontaneity each night more than King. The most exciting thing about King's guitar solos is that they are totally spur-of-the-moment. Not even he knows what they are going to sound like until they've actually been played. They're accompanied by a variety of visuals. King's first wife used to call him “Ol' Lemon Face,” and for good reason: during the course of tonight's gig, it goes through countless contortions. One moment his eyes and mouth will be wide open as he plays; the next, he'll have his eyes closed and his face cocked toward the sky, as if lost in meditation. Different expressions accompany different sounds.

“I'm just playing what I feel,” he says. “You know, it's hard for a patient in a hospital to tell the doctor how they feel. They either say, ‘I hurt here'' or ‘I hurt there,'' but that's not really describing how they feel. It's the same thing with me. When I sit down with the guitar, I'm just being myself. The band and I have our own sound. I don't ever have to go out and try to do things this way or that way. I just have to be myself. We just do what we do, the way we do it.”

They also share the wealth. King is more than generous with his band, allowing each member to enjoy the spotlight. Leon Warren, the band's other guitarist and a King sideman for 20 years, gets plenty of room to play throughout the evening. Bassist Michael Doster shines on “Bad Case of Love,” and saxophone players Melvin Jackson and Walter King get to wail on a number of tunes, as does trumpet player Stanley Abernathy. Drummer Calep Emphrey Jr. — like Warren, a mainstay in the band — keeps the beat all night long, and James Toney provides piano and Hammond B-3 parts. James Bolden, who plays trumpet and is also the band's musical director, is simply everywhere.

King treats the band with respect, and that respect is returned in almost every way imaginable. It's a tight-knit, quiet bunch in an old-school fashion. For example, the band members acquire King's permission before talking about him publicly, and they all honor his “one-strike-and-you're-out” policy concerning illicit drug use. Of course, they all dress impeccably, comporting themselves with the same kind of grace and dignity exuded by their boss.

“Before each night's show, one of my assistants will give me something to wear,” King explains. “If I'm playin' indoors, I will dress as a bandleader, as I think a bandleader should. I will dress then with a shirt and tie, maybe a tuxedo. But when we're outside, like tonight, you'll notice that everybody will have on tux pants — but the shirts are their choice.”


The night goes on. More music. Two blue plastic cups, both filled with water, sit at King's feet, right next to a small stand that holds a towel. The cups have been there all night long, but he hasn't touched them. Finally, after nearly 90 minutes of music, he lifts one and chugs it furiously. He then picks up the other, holds it above his head like a trophy, and the crowd roars in anticipation. King pulls back Lucille as if worried that he'll spill drops on the fretboard, and then drinks again. He pours the final few drops on his head. Once again, everyone in the house stands for King.

The gig's final moments are poignant. When King tackles “Key to the Highway” and bellows, “When I leave this town, I won't be back no more,” it's hard not to wonder if he knows something that everyone else doesn't. His tasteful, economical playing manages to say so much with so few notes; it only adds to the mystery.

Even when the music ends, the show still isn't really over. The crowd won't let him leave. He's now out of his chair for the first time since taking the stage nearly two hours earlier, and for more than ten minutes, King simply stands at the edge, lost in the cheers, arms outstretched, as if about to embrace the entire audience. The cheers aren't dying out. As the roaring continues, King throws handfuls of guitar picks into the crowd. The scene is vaguely reminiscent of another Mississippi-born artist who later called Memphis his home: Elvis Presley. Only this time no towels or scarves are flying through the air, just picks and adulation.

King signs a couple of autographs, shakes a few hands. A woman down front slips him a piece of paper. He looks at it, smiles, and slips it into his pocket. One wonders what it says. “Turn on the house lights!” a voice exclaims, and after the third request, the place finally lights up. Then, the thrill is gone: King has left the stage.


Time passes, yet King somehow endures — his journey seemingly has no end. Few things remain so relevant after five decades. Even fewer things prove to be as timeless.

Throughout the years, King has often publicly lamented the fact that he does not possess a college degree, though it's interesting to note that he has more honorary degrees (four) than platinum albums (two). Some people, however, regardless of formal education or the existence of a diploma, earn a Ph.D. in the school of life. Count King among them.

“Many people call me a legend, =60for a long time, I didn't know what that meant,” he says. “So I got a Webster's dictionary, and I saw that it meant that a legend is something or someone that has stood the test of time. So I've been out here 50 years. I've been doin' what I'm doin' for about 55, 56 years, but 50 years professionally. So I guess that's just another honor, when they call me a legend.”

Yes, it is.

Freelance writerSean S. McDevittis a former editor of Guitar magazine and has worked for a number of other magazines and daily newspapers. He lives in New York.

B.B.'s Gear

When you think of B.B. King's gear, the first word that comes to mind is Lucille. That name has been inexorably linked to King's guitar ever since an incident in his early performing days. As King tells it, he was playing a club in Twist, Arkansas, when a bar fight broke out. During the melee, a kerosene lantern spilled, and the club caught on fire. Everybody ran out of the club, but once outside, King realized that he'd left his guitar inside. At great risk to himself, he went back into the burning club to retrieve it. King escaped unscathed, and when he found out that the fight had started over a woman named Lucille, he named his guitar after her.

King has come a long way since then and so has “Lucille.” (There have been quite a few different Lucilles over the years.) Gibson now makes a Lucille model guitar — a semihollowbody electric with two humbucking pickups — that King uses exclusively. Not surprisingly, he strings it with Gibson B.B. King Signature strings that range from .010 to .054.

King's amp of choice is a Lab Series L5, a solid-state 2×12 combo. Because he rents his amps in each town he plays and can't always get a Lab Series L5 (it's no longer in production), his second choice is the more readily available Fender Twin Reverb (with Altec Lansing speakers).

For vocals, King uses a Shure SM58, wedge monitors, and side fills. His amp is miked with a Shure SM57.—Mike Levine



The official site, with tour information, a store, a links page, and more.


The site for the Hollywood nightclub bearing King's name.


“Totally devoted to the ultimate bluesman,” Worldblues' homage to King.