"You've got five minutes with B.B. before he goes onstage," I was told on the phone. "You've got five minutes" I was admonished again as I followed B.B.'s manager of 30-some years to the back of the quietly elegant tourbus where the king of the blues was busy working on his laptop. He patted the black leather couch next to him and said 'Start your recorder,' but what can you ask a legend in five minutes?
RW: As I researched for this interview, it's hard to know where to start. You've played with everyone.
BB: No, I haven't though, but go ahead.
RW: It seems like, it's an awesome list of people that you've worked with,
and as I listen to your music, I hear your music come through so clearly and
it's like other music blends into yours. How do you keep your voice, your
music, so uniquely yours given the wide range of music you work with?
BB: I think you do that sortof like you do your speech. You only try to improve it but you never try to make it go a particular way. For example, I'm from the South; I'm from Mississippi. And you'll hear my Mississippi accent and I don't try to get rid of it. And I think it's the same thing with singin and playin. You maybe try to, uh, how can I say it, learn more or better the condition that you have. I guess that's the best answer I can give you. You don't try to change it. I don't try to be anyone else. I listen to all people, all kinds of music and I admire what they do because usually I can't do it. But it's sortof like a story I heard once about animals. The fox was passin under this tree that had grapes in it, saw the other animals up in the trees eatin grapes. He yelled at em, 'throw down some grapes, guys,' and they said, 'you kiddin? If you want some grapes, you better climb up and get em.' So the fox knew he couldn't climb trees, so he said to himself, 'They probably sour anyway.' So why should I worry about it? So, I generally think I guess the same similar way about tryin to change my style. I never try to change it to what he does or she does but I would say to myself sometimes, it sounds good but I wouldn't do it that way. Sortof like the fox, I wouldn't do it that way.
RW: So you sortof test it against, you know, a stronger sense of yourself than thinking, 'I really like that.'
BB: Right, but don't get me wrong. I admire those people whomever they may be, but I think to myself, 'that's not me,' so if I can get a little bit of that - some musicians might use the word 'steal,' but I don't use the word 'steal,' but 'borrow' a little. If I could borrow a little taste of this, a little taste of that, I could put it in here and it would sound alright for
me, but I wouldn't do it exactly like that person did it.
RW: Tell me a little bit about your Deuces Wild. How did that come together?
Did you pick who you wanted to play with, and how did you pick the music?
BB: What happened was when we was gettin ready for this project, my manager
and I sat down and we talked about it and we talked about many other people than what we used. We used what we could get, who was available, because alot of people were busy just like we were and they wasn't ready to record at the time we were, so the ones that were, we got them and begged the others to be on the next one. Cause we wanted all we could get. So we got many good people that did and was available to work at that time and what we did was we sent them material of things that I've done and asked them would
they be interested in doing any of those. We also asked them if they would submit things that they were interested in doin to us, and we got a list like this, so we compromised. I was so glad to get em, anything that they would have done I would have been happy to accept.
RW: Yeah, like someone like Van Morrison, such a great writer.
BB: If you noticed, on that song I didn't sing at all.
RW: I did notice that.
BB: Now you wonderin why? Cause I thought he did such a great job I didn't want to screw it up. I played on it.
RW: Did you try it both ways?
BB: Here's what you do. You usually do that in your head. When he finished singing, I said no way, 'We'll leave that just like it is. I'll play on it but I won't sing.' And he was so fantastic to me. We did that in London. And he was such a great guy to work with. I love working with him.
RW: Is it pretty easy to develop a rapport with different musicians, just kindof jump in on the same page?
BB: Well, I think that that is like anything else. You have to start- first these people, they wouldn't be stars if they wasn't professionals. So I know that when I meet them and if we're doing a project of mine, I'm usually not bossy about it. I like their opinions on what we do and how we're doin it, and that usually causes you to get along very well.
RW: What is writing like for you? I just had an interview with Tab Benoit a little while ago, and he said you know it comes to him in the middle of the night, wakes him up. And really fast.
BB: I think it's like each person looks or each person talks or each person's actions, everybody you see are themselves which makes them unique. So I think writing is similar. Some people like, for example, Willie Nelson told me that he had done I think 3 or 4 songs and he needed one more, and within 15 minutes he had "On the Road Again."
RW: Is that what BB does?
BB: No, I think the point I'm tryin to make with you is that everybody is different. I don't wake up in the middle of the night writing no songs. Nor do I get up in the mornin thinkin I'm going to. I will start and try to get something into this thick skull of mine that would make some sense to me, cause I figure if it don't make sense to me, it's definitely not going to sound good to anybody else, so when I'm writing, I get in that mood to write
and I just keep writing. I do just like you do practicing an instrument. I practice and I practice and when I find something that sounds good to me, then I stay with it and I think it's the same way the way I do writing. Someone told me once and I believe it: they say there are as many ways to write as there are stars in the heavens. And I kindof believe it because at times I can't think of nothing. Not anything.
RW: Exactly. It's that way for me sometimes too. Sometimes its there and
sometimes it isn't and you just have to be open to when it is.
BB: You got to buckle down. No, you can make it happen just like writers do, but you got to get your mind on that, and think of that only, to really make it happen like a person writing a book or something. You've got to stick to your ideas and usually if you're thinking of something else, your ideas are like a puzzle.
RW: What's next for you? What's coming up that's new for you?
BB: I just got through recording with Eric Clapton. We did a whole CD.
RW: I wanted to ask about that. What was that like?
BB: Fine. He's one of my favorite people, and we had a good time doing it. Did some real old songs and did some new ones and in-between. I played some acoustic. He suggested we do some, uh, people call it unplugged things. I call it acoustic things. We both had acoustic guitars on some and it sounds
good. I think we did about 14 songs.
RW: What do you think about where the blues is headed. Now it seems like when I go listen to music it's more white musicians that have taken on the blues and you don't see- at least here - as many black musicians.
BB: When was it that you did? Tell me, then I'll comment on it.
RW: Has the blues stopped speaking as much to black people?
BB: You ask where are the blues going. It seems that everywhere there are white people playin em and my question to answer your question is when have you heard more blacks doin the blues than you have today? Let's say ten years ago, was it more blues played by blacks than it was today? My point is trying to understand you. So you were saying today why is it more white people, and I'm wondering when was the day when there was more black people?
RW: I'm thinking more of 30 or 40 years ago.
BB: You wasn't here 30 or 40 years ago.
RW: I wasn't going out to listen to music but I was here.
BB: Crawling maybe. But I'll try to answer you. Back when I was a kid, there was no radio stations that played black music or music by black people. Jazz, for example, started after blues had been out for a very long time, and the one person that I think of that may have played-at least he was popular was Louis Armstrong, and Louis did play blues at the time. In fact, at the beginning, most all of the major black stars played blues. Nat Cole played blues. Ella Fitzgerald. And Count Basie. Duke Ellington. I could mention alot of them that did that. But alot of them never did stop. They just did more of the other things where they could make money. They never really stopped. The blues players that I consider to really be blues players, for example, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson. My idols: Lonnie Johnson and Lemon Jefferson, oh God, and then the 40s and 50s, Louis Jordan, and Big Boy Crudup. Lightning Hopkins, these people, they was known by some
white people but white people really didn't get a chance to hear them as they do music today. And the 50s, you had the Motown sound which was very popular with white people. And popular with blacks too, but very popular with white people because the jobs and the places to play and the jobs was plentiful. White people could afford to pay them to come to certain functions that blacks did not, so the Motown sound was very popular with
blacks but more so with the whites. At that time rock and roll was starting, so rock and roll when it started there was no place for blues players to come in. If you didn't go in to the rock and roll side of it, you didn't get no work in the major places to play so it's never been to my knowledge a lot of black blues players. not alot of em. And of course today, yes, you got white kids that's really playin and supportin blues. and I'm so glad, I'm so glad because its opened up so many places, so many doors have been opened for blues players like myself. but you can almost count the blues players that was really there, that shall we say tried to make a living with blues music. I can pretty near name them on both hands. But some of those learned to do rock and roll or soul music later, and the ones that was able to do that crossover, they went into it because that's where the money was. Blues players didn't make no money. And then alot of times there was no place to play. Nobody would hire you. A few of us that stuck with it- I'm one, Bobby Bland, Little Milton, oh, I could name you quite a few, but the ones thatI'm namin are still with it.
RW: How did you get through your hard times? What kept you going?
BB: Well I felt as I did, growing up in the South, I had a teacher. He still lives. He's 100 years old now and he used to tell us that life wouldn't always be as it were, that eventually times would change because people would change. He told me that when I was about 10 or 12. Several things he told me that I remember today as if he was just telling me. Back when I was going to school we didn't have buses to ride. We lived in the country. We had to walk. We had to walk about 5 miles a day to school. So he told me then that it wouldn't be like that all the time. Eventually we would have school buses like everybody else and in most cases be riding with other children. And you know he was right.
RW: Do you think that's really true? I grew up in the 60s, and we were so idealistic and we thought we were going to change the world, and now I'm so disappointed in my generation when I look at the world that my kids are moving into, that we didn't change it as much as what we thought we would.
BB: You made it better. Of course, each generation thinks that. Each generation thinks that the older generation didn't do as much as they should have and we gonna do more. And of course they do as much as they can. But it's just like being president. President has to have a cabinet. There are senators, Congress and all that. He can only suggest. He can't make them do anything. So when he's elected president, his hands are tied to a point. Cause the people that was working in the White House are still there. The
people in Congress are still there. I think the point I'm tryin to make here is when each generation comes of age, of course they're gonna try, everybody's gonna try, cause they figure the world has been around a long time. Why is they just now getting computers? Why didn't they have so and so before? so we're gonna do better. If that had been the case- you've heard of Jesus Christ- he would have had airplanes.
RW: Tell me, at what point did you give yourself permission not to learn
BB: My manager is lookin at you weird.
RW: He's givin me the go.
BB: I'll answer this last question. I never gave myself permission. That's stupidity. I never gave myself permission not to.
RW: You're an excellent musician. I'm sure you can learn chords.
BB: I know some chords. I'm not shall we say fluent as alot of musicians are. But the chords that I know I can't play them behind myself. If I'm singing and trying to play something I cannot play properly behind myself, the chords that should be there. That's what I meant, but if you come in and catch the show tonight you'll hear me play chords.
RW: I can't wait. Are you in the zone pretty naturally now?
BB: No, you're off. Whatever you do, you have to keep in tune. I'm always trying - do you see this thing here? Points to laptop.
RW: Yes, I do. It's a little unexpected.
BB: Why do you think so? I'm a pilot also. I fly airplanes. You can't ever
RW: You can't ever tell. That's true. How long have you been flying?
BB: Since 1963. To answer your question, no, you continuously have to learn. If I - I'm off sometime like 2-3 weeks- I have to learn my routines in my head again or I'll forget some of the songs. I forget. I have to go back and get them in my head again. Because I gotta have at least 14 or 15 songs to remember the lines in my head. It's sortof like an actor or actress. I have to remember these lines and you kinda dramatize them you don't just say them you know you got to make it make some sense. So to answer your question I have to practice just like everybody else. I don't practice enough - never have.
The opening lines of B.B.'s last song in performance are: "I may not know your name, but I can love you just the same." And he sings them with arms outstretched to his audience. There was no new material in this evening's flawless performance, giving his excellent band plenty of room to shine. Songs included Bad Case of Love, The Thrill is Gone, and his favorite, "I'll Survive." In this interview and this performance, B.B. sees himself as a teacher and a link between past and future. He dedicated one song to one of
his favorites, Louis Jordan. B.B. is humble and giving, but lookin for a challenge in conversation and musically, with no seeming need or desire to promote CD's - never mentioning his latest "Makin Love is Good For You" which was due for release in a few days. I wish I could have five minutes every time B.B. comes to town.
This interview is copyright © 2000 by Rebecca West, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.
Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.