B.B. King, who died Thursday at 89, was the man who made you feel good with the blues, with a distinctive and influential guitar style, powerfully soulful voice and gentle nature, he played hundreds of shows a year well into his old age and spanned the music form from the cotton fields to Memphis (where he encouraged young Elvis) to worldwide — the classiest man on stage whether he shared it with Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton or U2.
I was happy to see him a handful of times over the years, in shows where I would have liked to have seen him perform more; generous by nature, he’d let everyone in his band take a solo before he’d take a second. And I was glad to finally speak to him one time not when he was on one of his many tours with his band, but when he was on a book tour
“I’m in the September or November of my years, and I thought if I don’t do it now, I never would,’’ he told me.
He was 71 at the time, in 1996, and the autobiography, “Blues All Around Me,” was written with writer David Ritz.
Books had been written before about King, a giant in American blues for more than 65 years. “But I felt and still feel a lot of people wrote in the past what they think and believe,” he said. “I wanted to set the record straight and tell it like it is.”
“Blues All Around Me” got notice for its frank depiction of his love life, but also its focus on music. For example, it was Blind Lemon Jefferson and sophisticated Lonnie Johnson who most influenced his style, he writes, not the bluesmen in the Mississippi Delta where he grew up.
“I still like them and many more today,” he said of the old masters. But he added, “There are a lot of young musicians today who do a lot of things on guitar I wish I could do.”
Things the King couldn’t do? “Oh, God, yes,” he said. “You’d be surprised to know how limited I am.
“I hear guys playing fluently, and improvising fluently. It seems to flow. Mine is like talking. And I’ve had a speech impediment most of my life. Even now, I speak slowly. So I play similarly.”
Even after performing so long, King never became an oldies act. At the time, his voice was prominently sampled on the Primitive Radio Gods’ single “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand,’’ with the line, “I’ve been downhearted baby, I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day, ever since the day we met.’ lifted from `How Blue Can You Get,” from his 1971 “Live in Cook County Jail” album.
In concert, the old song by Leonard Feather, the respected Los Angeles jazz critic, is more remembered for its exclaimed lines at the end: “I gave you a brand new Ford, you said `I want a Cadillac’/I bought you a $10 dinner, you said, `Thanks for the snack’/I let you live in my penthouse, you said it was just a shack/I gave you seven children and now you wanna give them back!”
“To me, it’s a song that told my story very well,” King says. “Both me and many other people — men and women.”
King has had a long and rich association with rock ’n’ roll. He opened for the Rolling Stones in 1972; in 1989, he recorded “When Love Comes to Town” with U2 for their “Rattle and Hum” album and film. In 2000, he got a Grammy for his duo album with Eric Clapton, “Riding with the King.”
With B.B. King Blues clubs around the country, he also helped dedicate a museum, the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Miss., in 2008.
Though a 2006 tour was dubbed his farewell, he kept playing another eight years, including a performance at the White House in 2012, backing Obama as he sang “Sweet Home Chicago,” and a performance at the 2013 New Orleans Jazz Festival.
But after thousands of stops in concert tours, King told me the book tour that year was more grueling. `You fly everywhere you go instead of taking a bus. Then you’re meeting someone to take you to radio stations and then to book stores for signing. The day before yesterday, I signed 1,000 books.”