00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.
00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.
00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.
00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.
00:00:27 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”
00:00:34 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.
00:00:39 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.
00:00:52 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance. I'm Alice Winkler.
00:01:00 ALICE WINKLER: On each episode of What It Takes, we dig into the Academy of Achievement's vault and pull out one recorded interview to share. Now, these are conversations with the most accomplished people from every field, people with stories about struggle and doubt, as well as grit and determination. Does the name Riley B. King ring any bells? A humble cotton picker from Kilmichael, Mississippi, born to a family of sharecroppers? If not, you surely know him by his stage name, B.B. King.
00:01:31 MUSIC: THE THRILL IS GONE
00:01:31 The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
You know you done me wrong baby
And you'll be sorry someday
00:02:03 ALICE WINKLER: B.B. King, who died in 2015, just shy of his 90th birthday, was one of the most influential guitarists and singers of the past century, Ambassador of the Blues, and national treasure. But his idea of making it, back when he was a farmer, was pretty humble. He wanted to wear something other than overalls.
00:02:28 B.B. KING: You wore them every day. Every day you had overalls on. Overalls are jeans with a bib to me. Well, I'd wear them all the week, on a Friday night wash them and dry them, and iron them on Saturday morning, and wear them to church on Sunday. But I swore, if God let me live, there are two or three things I would never do again — wear overalls. I would always have enough to eat if I needed it, and food that I like to eat.
00:03:04 Those three things, I swore to myself, if God let me get to be grown, these three things I'm going to have. And I didn’t get to be this big for nothing, so you can tell I've had food I like to eat.
00:03:16 ALICE WINKLER: Yeah, B.B. King was big, every which way — big voice, big laugh, big presence, big womanizer, big talent. But as big as he eventually made it, celebrated by musicians, fans, presidents, kings and queens, he remained largely that modest country farmer, as you can hear in this 2004 interview with journalist Irv Drasnin for the Academy of Achievement.
00:03:44 B.B. King was 78 at the time, still touring almost nonstop, but he seemed almost as proud of his prowess on the farm.
00:03:53 B.B. KING: I used to chop cotton. I did all these things when I was seven. I was considered a regular hand when I was seven years old. I used to bale hay. I guess I did everything that, you know, farmers usually do, and they expected me — the men expected me to do what they did, and I did. And I started to do more of it after I had dropped out of school because I made a little more money.
00:04:22 Then finally I learned — I don't know. I was kind of into — today I guess you would say technology, because I learned to drive tractors, and I was pretty good. I had never heard the word “superstar”, but when I think about it today, I was a superstar tractor driver. I loved it. I loved it for several reasons. Well, hey, the girls look at you. I made a lot of money.
00:04:49 I've been feeling crazy about girls all my life. That was my downfall, I guess. Still is. But I made a lot of money. My salary, compared to everybody else, was great. I made $22-and-a-half a week! Then I'd go to town on Saturday, after I got through with my tractor, sit on the street corners with my little guitar. I had a little red Stella guitar, and I'd play.
00:05:19 And I'd sing, starting with gospel all the time. Sing a gospel song, and people would — and I guess I was kind of smart, in a way, because I knew where the white people passed and the black people passed, so I’d sit right at that corner. Well, the white folks had to pass me going this way and that way, and the black folks passed me going this way and that way.
00:05:48 So some of all would stop, listen to me, because I guess I made enough noise, and I had my big hat sitting down there, or a bucket or something for them to put tips in. And people that would ask me to play or request a song, when I finished playing, if it was a gospel song, they would pat me on the head and the shoulders, and they would applaud me.
00:06:18 "Boy, that was nice! Keep it up! You're going to be good one day," but they didn’t put anything in the hat. But people who would ask me to play a blues would always put something in the hat. Now you know why I'm a blues singer.
00:06:32 MUSIC: WHY I SING THE BLUES
00:06:32 Everybody wants to know
Why I sing the blues
Yes, I say everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I've been around a long time
I really have paid my dues
When I first got the blues
They brought me over on a ship
Men were standing over me
And a lot more with a whip
And everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I've been around a long time
Mm, I've really paid my dues
00:07:23 ALICE WINKLER: To listen to B.B. King talk about his childhood with that mesmerizing voice and sense of humor, it can all sound, well, a little idyllic. He said he passed the time, as all boys did then, fishing, hunting, playing marbles, but of course, it was the segregated South, the Deep South. When interviewer Irv Drasnin asked King what the hardest thing was growing up, it took a little digging to get him to talk about that, and you'll hear that part of the conversation in a moment, but the first thing that came to B.B. King's mind was more mundane.
00:07:58 B.B. KING: Getting up in the morning, going to the fields. I never did like that. I am a farmer at heart. I loved farming, producing food, and seeing the trees grow, the grass and everything else. It's great after you once get out there, but getting up that morning to get up to go out and do it was hard. It'd be cold in the morning, and I never have liked a lot of cold.
00:08:27 And I see why I'm not white, because I could not stand the cold. I walk around now, I see people — especially white people, in their shirtsleeves, and I have on something heavy and I’ll still be cold. You know, the reptiles have nothing on me when — or the air conditioning. I don't want to, you know, bust anybody’s balloon, but they could have kept the air conditioning, as far as I'm concerned.
00:08:27 ALICE WINKLER: But, back to that childhood in Kilmichael, Mississippi, interviewer Irv Drasnin insisted, “How was it growing up black in that time and place?”
00:09:09 B.B. KING: I had never experienced the North. I didn't know anything about the North. I didn’t know anything about any other society other than what we lived in. I didn’t think I was any different from anyone else, other than I was a black kid instead of, you know, a white kid, and it was a segregated society. We walked to school. The white kids had a school bus. And I was crazy about Roy Rogers.
00:09:40 I liked William Edward. We called him Wild Bill. Never did think of him as being white. Those cowboys, my heroes. So to answer your question truthfully, it was all right with me. Just that some people had and some had not, and I wished I could have been one of those that had. Now that’s the truth.
00:10:06 I knew that if I went to town on a Saturday, which I did, and there were two fountains, one said “Black,” one said “White.” I didn’t think other than, that if you want to stay out of trouble, leave the white one alone. I also noticed that when I went to the restrooms, there was one that said “White Men,” “White Ladies” and “Colored.”
00:10:37 That's all I knew. I grew up with it. My family would always say — and because there were people being lynched around me, I've seen — I haven't seen people be lynched, but I've seen them after they were. And I was told by some of the elders that, "Hey, don't bother the white ladies. You don't do this. You don't do that." And I learned that at an early age, and to me, it was just part of my training.
00:11:05 I think this is why black people never did resist for such a long, long time, because if there's any such thing as being brainwashed, I was brainwashed, but it didn’t bother me. I didn't know the difference until people started to tell me, and I started to hear about the North, and I started to hear, past the — what they call the Mason-Dixon line.
00:11:30 Well, after I got, say, in my teens, I started to realize that. I started to notice that some of the people lived — Chicago seemed to be the place you could go and get a nice car. You could live anywhere you want, and you can marry anybody you want. You could date anybody. I started to think about it a little.
00:11:52 ALICE WINKLER: But as a younger child, B.B. King was far too steeped in his own trying circumstances to dream about going north. It is remarkable, absolutely remarkable, that he achieved what he did.
00:12:04 B.B. KING: I could have done better, but my mom died when I was nine. I lived alone from the time I was nine until I was fourteen, because my mom and my dad were divorced from the time I was five, and my mother had taken me from the Delta, back up in the hills, up to Kilmichael, where we were talking about.
00:12:24 I lived there after my mother died, as I said, when I was nine; she was twenty-seven. They didn’t know what was wrong. My mother went blind. I could see the big blood clots in her eyes, and she couldn't see, but she would talk to me. I was the only child, and I liked working for the people that my mother worked for, the Cottledge family.
00:12:50 I liked them. So while working for Mr. Flake Cottledge, I was what they call in the country a houseboy. Houseboy was a guy that did whatever was around to be done. And my wages — I made fifteen dollars a month, which I thought was a lot of money. Fifteen dollars a month. That’s how I got my first guitar. People talk about people gave it to me and this and that. I didn't. Mr. Flake Cartledge bought it for me. Took half of my salary one month, and took the other half the next month, so it cost me fifteen dollars, a whole month's salary to get it.
00:13:32 When I would finish my chores — I used to milk twenty cows a day, ten in the morning, ten at night — and when I would finish, they'd let me go to school. And that's how I got my schooling, and I would walk five miles to school, and I managed to make it through the tenth grade, and that was it. But if I had tightened up, I could have done better. Of course I could have done better, but without any supervision — they didn’t make me go to school.
00:14:02 There were no agencies around there that would take me away from where I was, but, now, there were people in the area, in the community — it was almost like a village — that would tighten you up if you got out of line. Any of them could and would.
00:14:19 ALICE WINKLER: The number-one person to tighten up B.B. King, and the first person to open his eyes to the injustice around him, was the teacher at his school.
00:14:28 B.B. KING: We had one room where we sat at and one teacher, and I guess it was about forty or fifty of us, and that was the most of my schooling. And my professor was a guy called Luther H. Henson, whom I love today. I truly believe that he was one of the few people that was able to get through this very thick skull of mine, because things he told us then, it was long before we ever even heard of a Dr. King, long before we ever heard of integration, anything of that sort.
00:15:08 But he used to tell me then — after they calmed me down first when I would come to school — it was a lady that sat in front of me. Oh, I guess she was about eight or nine, and so was I, but she was fully developed, seemingly, as a woman, heavy breasts and everything. We'd sit on pews. We didn’t have chairs like what we're sitting in.
00:15:37 And about once or twice every month, I'd get that urge — because I sat behind her all the time — to just reach over and grab her. So when I'd get that urge and reach over to hug the girl — I don't know why — yes, I do. We won't talk about that. But I would grab — she was just pretty to me. And the minute I would grab her, she'd bite, like that, and when she'd bite, he'd hit. You know?
00:16:09 Ever hear of an elm tree? An elm tree has limbs that grow very long, and they don't break easily, and the people used to take them — it was just like a whip. You would almost swear it was a whip. And they would sort of put them in the heater, and they'd sort of bind it a little bit. And when they bound it, it seemed to me the bark on the side of it was like leather.
00:16:42 So after I sat up there for a while and got over that terrible pain, he would start to talk with us, and for some reason I understood him very well. He said, "One day, you won't have to walk to school." We had to walk five miles to school. "One day you won't have to walk to school. One day there'll be a central school," he would say sometimes, "and everybody will go to that school."
00:17:10 "Some day nobody will look at you and think of you as — a country boy, or this, if you don't act like that, and they will judge you by your deeds." Those were his words. "Whatever you do, however you do it, will follow you the rest of your life."
00:17:32 ALICE WINKLER: With a good straightening out from his teacher and the righteous example of his mother when she was still alive, B.B. King headed on the path toward becoming a gospel singer.
00:17:44 MUSIC: SAVE A SEAT FOR ME
00:17:44 Tell my mother to save a seat for me
Save a seat for me
Because I’m weary
Lord, I'm tired
I've been ‘buked, Lord
I've been scarred
I've been talked about
Though my loved ones are gone
00:18:16 B.B. KING: My mother would take me to church, and this preacher in the church was named Reverend Archie Fair, we called him. Archie Fair was his name, and he played guitar in the church, so I wanted to be like him. I had sung with this group, the Elkhorn — like an elk's horn — Jubilee Singers. That's where I started in Kilmichael, and I thought we were pretty good, but then when I moved to the Delta, that broke up the group, and I started to sing with another group called the St. John Gospel Singers.
00:18:58 And I would usually sing as a lead singer, and I had started to play the guitar pretty good, so we were one of the few groups, gospel groups, that used a guitar. And I thought we were good because we had sung on programs with, oh, some of the great, great gospel singers. We were like an opening act, opened shows for them, and I thought — I personally thought we were pretty good.
00:19:22 And we would work our crops each year, and come harvest time we talked about leaving and going someplace to record because there were no recording studios in the area. So we would have had to go to Greenwood, Greenville, or to Memphis, and I thought Memphis would be the best because I'd heard so much about Memphis and the things they were doing.
00:19:54 Each year, for about three or four years, the — we would talk about it, the guys and I, and every year one of them would say, "Well, man, I didn't make but two or three bales of cotton. I don't have any money, and I can't leave now." So finally one day I said, "Well, I'm going to leave," and that's how I did it. I left and went to Memphis. But going to Memphis then was like, a few years ago, going to London or Japan or somewhere. Memphis seemed to be far, only a hundred-and-some miles, but so far from where I was.
00:20:27 The buildings and everything — they had big hotels and much going on. And there was a nice recording studio. A fellow named Sam Phillips had a nice studio. I had never been in a recording studio. At that time, we didn't have stereo. Everything was mono.
00:20:49 MUSIC: THREE O'CLOCK BLUES
00:20:49 Now here it is three o'clock in the morning
Can't even close my eyes
Oh, three o'clock in the morning, baby
Can't even close my eyes
Well, I can't find my baby
Lord, and I can't be satisfied
00:21:29 ALICE WINKLER: B.B. King did work with Sam Phillips, but when he signed with RCM Records, he started recording at a makeshift studio with the YMCA. This tune, recorded there, Three O'Clock Blues, became his first hit single. The recording quality's not great, but you can hear what would become that signature urgency in his voice, and as Rolling Stone magazine called it, the “prickly comet” from his guitar after nearly every phrase he sings.
00:21:58 Also, you hear a more sophisticated arrangement than you'd find in the average country blues song at the time. B.B. King said Memphis changed him and made him up his game.
00:22:09 B.B. KING: I thought before I left home that I was really good. Oh, man, I could — thought I could really sing. Play the guitar. Thought I was really good. When I got to Memphis and went down to Handy Park — at the time I think it was called Beale Street Park — and heard those people out there, it was like a community college on the streets. I found out then that I wasn't so good as a singer.
00:22:38 Oh, I thought I could sing, but nothing compared to what I thought before I got there and heard these other people sing. I saw people dancing, and I couldn’t even hardly walk. I’ve never been able to dance in my life. So I got books from Sears Roebuck. I'd write and order my books. There was a guy called Nick Manoloff. Nick Manoloff had books, guitar instruction books in the Sears Roebuck catalogue, the big one.
00:23:13 I'd order those books, and I studied them really just — and that's how I learned to put my fingers on, learned how to tune the guitar, and learned my first bit of learning how to read music. I'm a blues singer, blues musician, but I can read music. Not fast, but I do, and I learned to even write a little bit. Now with my computer I can write a little better. And I believed in myself.
00:23:43 ALICE WINKLER: Believed in himself and worked incredibly hard. James Brown may have been called the hardest-working man in show business, but it's hard to imagine that B.B. King couldn't share that title.
00:23:54 B.B. KING: I had bought an old bus. We called it Big Red. Bought that in 1955. Big Red — and that year I think we did 342 one-nighters. Well, people laugh at me because we did, but blues has never been a popular music like rock-and-roll or like jazz or anything, so I always used the word — we seemed to be at the bottom of the totem pole all the time.
00:24:25 But my guarantee, I believe, was about $250 a day, or night, and we needed the money. Always felt — still do — that moving about would introduce us to the kind of music that we do. I happen to think that the great spirit, God, put us all here for a reason, and all of us have something to do.
00:24:54 There's a place for playing the guitar. There's a place for singing the blues. I tell stories like other people do, in song, so why shouldn't I?
00:25:02 ANNOUNCER: King of the Blues, B.B. King!
00:25:11 ALICE WINKLER: B.B. King continued during his career to tour constantly, right into his eighties, and every night, he told the Academy of Achievement, he had to overcome his fears.
00:25:21 B.B. KING: You're not going to believe what I'm about to tell you. I have stage fright today. Seventy-eight years now. I had a lot of confidence that I could do it. I hear Professor Luther Henson again, saying, "If you try, try, try hard. If you try — nothing beats a failure but a try," and I believe that.
00:25:50 I believe that today. I believe you — sometimes you may not make that mark that you were trying to get, this time.
00:26:00 MUSIC: WHEN LOVE COMES TO TOWN
00:26:00 I was a sailor who was lost at sea
Under the waves before love rescued me
I was a fighter who could turn on a thread
I stand accused of the things I've said
When love comes to town
I'm gonna jump the train
When love comes to town
I'm gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town
00:26:26 ALICE WINKLER: It seems unimaginable that B.B. King suffered from stage fright his whole career. He was so good. He just made it look easy.
00:26:35 B.B. KING: No, it doesn’t really come so easy. I think that I know my job pretty well, but I always think this way, and no, it's not false modesty or anything: I'm never any better than my last job. You understand what I'm trying to say? In other words, I don't always think that I've got it made and, "Hey, I'm B.B. King so-and-so." Never that. Never that, because the people put you up there and they can cut you down like that.
00:27:12 I've known people that had a little money, and overnight something happened — insurance no good, and what little money they had was gone — so I never think that I got it made.
00:27:27 ALICE WINKLER: In fact, there was a good, long period, he said, when he lost much of his African American following. Blues had given way to all the other forms of music it influenced, but B.B. King continued to spread the gospel of the blues, and then one day...
00:27:50 B.B. KING: And then one day I was reading a magazine. At this time, The Beatles was the hottest group I ever heard of, and I guess anybody else, and I read where John Lennon was being interviewed, and he — the interviewer asked him what would he like to do. And he said, "Play guitar like B.B. King." I almost fell out of my chair.
00:28:16 Now we started to pick up a different audience. Instead of the black audience that we had, we're now getting young white people. Now I'm traveling about, and I'm going to San Francisco. I'm going to small places all over the United States. Then finally this agency booked me at a place called the Fillmore West. Now I'd play the Fillmore many times before when it was owned by another person.
00:28:49 But this time, when I get there, there are longhaired kids, kind of like Jesus Christ used to have. Long hair. I had never seen people wear hair like that, around me. I saw it in papers, books, and the Bible. When I pulled up there, and we’re still on this bus — this is Big Red, as we called it. Looked out there at the Fillmore, where we used to go, and on the stairway leading to the door, there were people sitting from here all the way across, and there were about three or four stairs that led up to the door.
00:29:33 The stairs were about as long as the average length of a regular car, and they’re body-to-body sitting there. So I told my road manager, I said, "I think they made a mistake this time. I don't think we're supposed to go here." I said, "The band and I are going to sit here. You go in there and find out what the mistake is." So my road manager went out, and he found the promoter, who was Bill Graham, one of the greatest people I think I've met.
00:30:02 And he came out and said, "Oh, no, B. This is the right place." I looked and went to say, "Are you sure?" And he said, "I'm the promoter. Come on in." I'm scared to get off the bus, scared as I could be. I’d never played for anybody like this. Now when we finally get through this — these people on the stairway, we get inside, there's no tables, just a big ballroom, bare. No tables, no chairs, nothing.
00:30:34 People now are sitting body-to-body on the floor. Said, "Oh, my God." So we’ve got to get past them, this way and that way, and finally we got to the old dressing room that I had been used to going to. I looked at Bill, and I said, "Bill, I’ve got to have a drink." He said, "B, we don't sell liquor here." "Don't care. I’ve got to have a drink."
00:31:03 He said, "Okay, I'll send out and get you one." He sent out and got me a half-a-pint of something. I don't know, but he — they brought it to me, and now I had a big belt of it, and I sat there reminding myself of how a cat would be if a dog were in front of him. I'm scared to death. So when time was — when it was time for me to go on stage, he came back and got me, and we had to wade back through these people again.
00:31:32 But when we got to the stage — see, they don't know me by looking at me. They don't know what I look like. They only know me by the music. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen," and everybody got very quiet. "I bring you the chairman of the board, B.B. King." The best intro and the shortest I ever had in my life, and all of a sudden they started to applaud, and they stood up, and they applauded, and I cried.
00:32:02 Because I was starting to think how these people can be so good to me, and what the heck am I going to do for them? I’ve never played to any people like this. Well, I quite often perspire quite a bit. Perspiration is running all on me — but I was crying, too — and I think I had about a 45-minute set. Do you know they stood up two or three times more?
00:32:30 And that's the first time that I ever thought that I was doing pretty well. Not really made it, but I've gotten pretty close to the door.
00:32:40 ALICE WINKLER: B.B. King walked right through that door, even if he wasn't willing to let himself sit back and feel he'd made it. But the endless honors he received testify to the fact that he had. A place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Arts, honorary doctorates from University of Mississippi and Yale, visits with four sitting U.S. presidents and the Queen of England.
00:33:11 Without B.B. King, there might not have been a Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Fleetwood Mac, Carlos Santana, or Rolling Stones, many of whom he played and recorded with later in life as they recognized the debt they owed him. B.B. King liked all that, sure, but this is the ruler he said he used to measure his true success.
00:33:37 B.B. KING: This is sort of long, but my impression of the — what I get from people when they talk about blues singers, they picture a big black guy, like myself, sitting on a stool looking north, with a cigarette hanging on the east end of his lip, a guitar that's ragged laying across his lap, and a jug of corn liquor on his west side, and his pants split on the south side.
00:34:14 You still with me? A cap with a bib, and the bib is kind of turned up. So it's been my life, always, to show that there's a different blues singer, not just that one. But I've thought many times, if you're black and you're a blues singer, it's like being black twice. Two times. I've always fought against that. The myth is that everybody thinks it's all sad because it started from the slaves.
00:34:53 That is a myth. Some of it is. But tell me what music doesn't have some sadness in it? I have learned that blues singing is just like singing any other kind of song. You still try to tell the story. You have a soul, you have a heart, you have a feeling, and your music is life.
00:35:22 Life as we've lived it in the past, life as we're living it today, and life as, I believe, we'll live tomorrow.
00:35:34 ALICE WINKLER: It's hard to think of anything to add to that, so I'll just end by saying, “B.B. King.” If you want to learn more about him or see videos of him performing for the Academy of Achievement, go to achievement.org, and next time you're jonesing for a dose of inspiration, you'll find it right here at What It Takes. I'm Alice Winkler.
00:35:55 And a special thanks, as always, to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for funding What It Takes.
00:36:02 MUSIC: PLAYIN’ WITH MY FRIENDS
00:36:02 I'm gonna call up some of my buddies,
And a few of the ladies I know
I'm gonna rent a hall and get them all and,
Put on a heck of a show
Make sure we got a kitchen,
With an oven and a stove
We'll all get in there cookin’,
Then we'll throw open all the doors
Playin’ with my friends
Playin’ with my friends
Playin’ with my friends
We'll have a good time
Playin’ with my friends