Even at age 66, as he finishes his 41st year on the road, B.B. King says that life as a traveling blues musician still holds new possibilities.
Like finding a new country to play in. Speaking over the phone recently from Buenos Aires, a stop on a three-week tour of South America, the much-traveled King said that he had just played Chile for the first time.
By now, though, King and his definitive blues style are pretty much familiar and universal entities, even in virgin territory.
“It just seemed like I had been there before,” King said of his show in Santiago, Chile. “The people knew the music, I guess they knew me. They were very hospitable.”
King said he also discovered sources of freshness and newness while recording his current album, “There Is Always One More Time.” It is, by his count, the 72nd album of his career.
“I had more time. I felt freer doing it,” said King, who is as gracious in conversation as he always is on a concert stage. “I felt I could stretch out a little and make mistakes. I don’t usually go out on a limb (and record) something I haven’t rehearsed, just go ahead and play it, and if I screw it up, I screw it up. But this album I felt I could do that, and play what I feel, regardless. I could branch out, go a little wild if I wanted to. It was sort of like walking through a tunnel at Disneyland. You don’t know what will pop out at you.”
The result is an engaging album that achieved the clean, contemporary sound King was after, without sacrificing fundamental bluesiness. It’s a good deal better than King’s previous studio effort, the synthesizer-garnished “King of the Blues ’89.”
The new album’s 8 1/2-minute title track, a gospel-blues ballad that features an extended, album-closing guitar solo from King, was written by his friend, Doc Pomus. As he recorded the song last fall, King knew that Pomus was dying of cancer.
“It made me feel good to know that I was doing something that hopefully would cheer him up a little,” King said. “I was quite emotional thinking about him.” Pomus got to hear the finished track shortly before he died, King said. “His family tells me that it lifted his spirits. Can you understand how that would make me feel?”
Most of the album was written by the team of Joe Sample, the Crusaders’ keyboard player, and Will Jennings, Steve Winwood’s main songwriting partner during the past decade. Guitarist Arthur Adams also contributed two songs. The recurring themes of endurance, and of intimate acquaintance with the blues, are well-tailored to King.
Recalled King: “I did the same thing I did with (U2 singer) Bono when he was writing, ‘When Love Comes to Town.’ I said, ‘Would he think of me and write a song for me?’ The ones Joe Sample and Arthur Adams wrote were fantastic. They were saying things I wish I could have said.”
King is thinking about having his own say by writing an autobiography.
“I’ve got a lot I want to share with young musicians and the people,” he said. “And I’d like to clear up some of the myths, like (the one about) Bobby Bland being my chauffeur.”
King said that he and Bland, who will join King and Ruth Brown on a blues-R&B; triple header tonight at the Celebrity Theatre, have been friends since 1949, but never employer and employee.
According to several music reference books, including the Rolling Stone Rock & Roll Encyclopedia, Bland started out in the early ‘50s as King’s valet or chauffeur. Not so, says King.
“You’re getting this from the horse’s mouth,” he said, emphatically. “He never did work for me. He’s never been on my payroll. I’ve ridden with so many people, but he never drove me as a job.”
King rates Bland as “my favorite singer” and aims to be on hand when the veteran blues-soul vocalist is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Jan. 15 (King himself was inducted in 1987).
“I think he should have been (voted in) long before,” King said. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Anything I can do to enhance him winning, to enhance his reputation, I’m willing to do.”
One thing King says he wouldn’t be willing to do in an autobiography is drag down anyone’s reputation.
“I wouldn’t want to do a show-and-tell thing, like I have seen some do. That wouldn’t be good.” If publishers insist on controversial revelations, he said, “I won’t have a book.”
King says there isn’t a lot of sensation or controversy to reveal in retelling his story.
“What I’ve done isn’t so exciting. Some people have been on drugs and then repented and become born-again Christians and all that. I’ve been a born-again Christian all my life. I’ve never used drugs. All I’ve done is be a musician, try to play and be punctual. Out of 41 years, I’ve missed 18 (shows), and those were not my fault. Eighteen times in 41 years. I think that’s a pretty good record.”
It’s a modest-to-a-fault self-assessment. If King wanted to brag, he could say plenty about being one of the most influential and enduring singers and guitar stylists of the past 40 years (his first big hit, “Three O’ Clock Blues,” entered the charts 40 years ago this week). Instead, King says things like: “I wouldn’t say that I’m talented, but I could play. I learned by listening to people who could play.”
King did refer to himself as “a superstar” in the course of the interview, but he was talking about his blue-collar jobs, not his blues prowess.
“I was a superstar as a tractor driver and a bus driver, all of those things I was doing well before I got into music. Driving a tractor was like being a superstar on the plantation.” King said he earned $22.50 a week driving tractors in the cotton fields near his hometown of Indianola, Miss.
A guitar first came into King’s hands when he was 12. As he recalls it, it was one he wasn’t supposed to touch. A preacher named Archie Fair, who was the brother-in-law of King’s uncle, used to come for dinner.
“When the preacher would visit our house, he would bring his guitar and lay it on the bed,” King said. “One day I played it and he caught me. I thought my family would be angry, but he didn’t scold me. He taught me the I-IV-V chords, and I’ve been using them ever since.”
As a boy, King sang in a gospel quartet. “I never thought I would be popular as a blues singer, but as a gospel singer.” After he turned 18, he said, the guitar became his weekend job, supplementing what he earned on the farm. “I would go to the little towns and play on the street corners, kind of like panhandlers do.”
King found that when he played gospel songs, “they would always give me a nice compliment, but they would never tip.” When he sang the blues, the people still had compliments, but they also reached into their pockets. “See the motivation?”
King doesn’t sound as if he is in danger of losing his motivation now that he has passed the usual age of retirement. The refrain of one of his new songs, “I want to roll, roll, roll forever, I want to feel the beat go on,” isn’t too far off the mark.
“I would like to,” King said, chuckling at the idea of a perpetual-motion blues career stretching into infinity. “Naturally, when a guy gets to the phase where he can’t do it anymore, that’s the end. But you go till the end. I think of Doc (Pomus). His brain was sharp right up to the end. That’s the way I’d like to go, doing what I enjoy, and hopefully making people happy.”