During a recent interview, B.B. King--who turned 70 on Sept. 16 and who begins a series of local dates Tuesday night at the Coach House--was discussing a recording he made in the late '50s with members of Count Basie's band. He noted that, although he has established his own reputation as a bluesman, he remembers such jazzmen as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker "sending a sword through my heart" with their music.
But, asked if he ever wanted to become a jazz player, he said he became "convinced that I could play the blues better than anything else I could do musically. I finally started to realize that I'm in my own backyard and can do pretty near all the things I feel. I started to see that I don't have to go to jazz, country, soul to find things to play. I can listen to the people who play the kind of music I play and still learn something.
"Actually, if I'd learned all the things that are in my own yard, I'd be pretty well equipped. But I haven't learned them yet."
Be that as it may, he has sold millions of recordings, has nine Grammys, blues clubs in Memphis and Universal City and an honorary doctorate from Yale. Earlier this month received one of the 18th annual Kennedy Center Honors.
His ascent, from a poor boyhood on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, was a long one, built on decades of touring. And he stills travels--by bus, mainly--everywhere from Tennessee juke joints to the Royal Albert Hall, working 250 nights a year.
Asked if he first heard the blues on the radio, he laughed robustly. "Radio?! When I was a kid, only the well-off people had radios. It was a long time before we got electricity at our home, and when Dad got our first radio, I thought we were young Rockefellers."
These days, he lives very comfortably in Las Vegas, with a Caddy and a Rolls in the garage. But he won't cut back on his schedule.
"You're only as good as people think you are," he said. "Don't think that if you have reached the top, people will love you from now on. You still have to stay out there."
* B.B. King plays Tuesday at 7 and 9:30 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano ( 496-8930) and Thursday at 7 and 9:30 p.m. at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana ( 957-0600).