B.B. King, beloved musical icon and embraced by both blacks and whites, comes from a time when there were two Americas. Before the induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, before the many honors, even before he picked up a guitar, the blues singer picked cotton, drove tractors and sawed wood. He never finished high school. And despite all the fame, he has never forgotten growing up in the segregated South, where they just opened the B.B. King museum in Indianola, Mississippi, near his birthplace on a cotton plantation.
"We went through some hard times," said King, who is now 80 years old. "Let me tell you this, if we didn't
have good white friends during that era when I was growing up, there would be no blacks in Mississippi. At that
time, a white person could kill you any time they wished and nothing would ever be done about it. "But there was a lot of white people who didn't believe in that and wouldn't allow it. So I was lucky." King talked in an interview about life on the
road, of his 30 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, of his love of flying and nature and old cowboy movies. But mostly, he talked about the blues, that music, which like King himself, grew out of the suffering and hardships of plantation labor.
"I think of blues this way: It's life as we've lived it in the past, life as we're living it today and life I believe we will
live tomorrow. Because, to me, it has to do with people, places and things," he said. Beethoven and Brahms and all
those guys, the music hasn't changed, the people have. But you still hear it and it's still good. I think of the blues the same way."
When asked about his 300-plus days-a-year touring schedule, King said: "I only had three months off in 60
years. "I haven't been lucky like some of the rock 'n roll players. A lot of them go out for three or four months and
then they stop for two or three years. I've never been able to do that, I'm a blues singer. "Blues singers, blues players, we haven't been popular," said King, a bear of a man laid low now by diabetes that forces him to sit on stage with his guitar "Lucille" across his lap. At age 80, doesn't he ever consider retiring? "I couldn't afford to do it," King laughed. "I have days off, but we don't get airplay like other styles of music, so I learned at an early age that unless I go out and carry music to the
people, it sure don't come to them by air."
He thinks back to the plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, where he was born on September 16, 1925. "I never thought I'd make 80 years, even 50 seemed very old, because where I grew up in the country there, we didn't have the medicines, the doctors, the hospitals, like people in the city have. "I've been in 18 automobile accidents, but I've never had one myself ... it
was always someone else!" King said he was driving at age 13. "I was a truck driver, a tractor driver. I picked cotton, I plowed with mules. I did most of the stuff people do on a plantation, your work is never done. You survive."
B.B. King's first break came after World War II when King hitch-hiked to Memphis and got a job as a disc-jockey at a local radio station. People heard his guitar-playing and singing. It was in Memphis where Riley King won the nickname "The Beale Street Blues Boy," which was shortened to just "Blues Boy" and then B.B. He remembers the songs from his first record. "There were four sides. I was married at the time, so one was called 'Miss Martha King,' the second was 'How Do You Feel when Your Baby Packs Up to Go,' the third was 'Take a Swing with Me' and the fourth 'I've Got the Blues."'
At 80, one thing King does talk about is his mortality. He has diabetes and other health problems, and his walk is a slow shuffle. Asked what he'd like people to think of when they hear his name, he says, "When I pass on I would like people to think of me as a guy who loved people and wanted to be loved by them. I'd like for people to think of me as a next door neighbor, one that they could trust."