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If you like B.B. King's story, you might also like:
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B.B. King
B.B. King
Profile of B.B. King Biography of B.B. King Interview with B.B. King B.B. King Photo Gallery

B.B. King Interview (page: 6 / 7)

King of the Blues

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  B.B. King

You've had to pay some dues along the way. You encountered some real setbacks.

B.B. King: I think I have. I've had tragedies. I remember once, after I thought I was doing pretty good -- this is sort of hard. I haven't talked about it a lot. After I thought I was doing pretty good, I bought an old bus. We called it Big Red. I bought that in 1955. The band would hop on that and we was doing pretty good. That year I think we did 342 one-nighters. Blues has never been a popular music like rock and roll or like jazz. I always use the words, "We seem to be at the bottom of the totem pole all the time." My guarantee, I believe, was about $250 a night, and we needed the money. We were young at that time and didn't pay much attention to what we were doing, no more than we were going places. Moving about, we introduced the kind of music that we do. I hope when they come they're surprised and they'll hear it and like it and they'll come back again.

Well, at that time then we thought it was a great thing to have a bus. The band would be in the bus and I'd have my car. You had to have a new car, especially a Cadillac. You'd tell everybody you're doing great when you didn't know whether you were going to eat the next morning. Look like what you ain't. If people think you're doing well, they'll support you well. That was our thing.

One particular day I had played in Monroe, Louisiana, on my way to Dallas. So, I had gone to visit somebody. My bus left at the time it was supposed to. Later that evening I came on, on my way to Dallas, and found out that my bus had been involved in a wreck. It had ran head on with a butane gas truck. It had burned the front end -- the whole front end off of the bus. None of my people was killed or hurt, I should say except the driver. He had broke his toe trying to get out of there, but a man had been killed in the accident and another one had burned badly. I didn't see them. I wasn't there. I didn't know about it. And, the same day, would you believe, during that time the Senate was -- I forgot the word they call it -- but when the big conglomerates and insurance companies, when the big ones get -- they had started to tear them apart if you know what I mean. I think they did it to AT&T and a few other companies. At that time, that very evening, I get a letter from my insurance company telling me that the insurance was terminated that very day, and this is like on a Friday. So, I got Saturday and Sunday, then come Monday before I can get more insurance, but I'm already on the bus, the bus now done burned up, a man has been killed! Like I said, I wasn't there to see it. It still cost me, and they claimed there was a lady that caused the accident that was coming up to one of them Texas bridges. And in Texas, even then they didn't have the super highways like we have today, [but] you had ballast on this side, something that if you hit it you would skid back over this way or back this way, and it was raining. So, the bus tried to miss this lady in the car, and then hit that ballast, and when he did, that's when it bounced back right in the path of that oncoming butane gas truck. It hurt me so bad. I didn't know what to do, but then they sued me. They didn't care nothing about it. It was a million dollars. One million dollars! I ain't never even seen -- I couldn't even spell a million! God, a million dollars. That was one of those times when you talk about paying dues. It took me a few years to pay it, but they let me pay it off. But, luckily the lady had good insurance and a great lawyer, so we were lucky to get a pretty good lawyer that worked with her lawyer, and they got it down to a million. They wanted much more, but we had to pay it off. That was my first setback.

Was there a turning point in your career?

B.B. King: Well, let me start it off like this:

I was with a small label, and to sell 100,000 copies of anything was a hit for them. So, I got a telegram from my company that said that, "B, you got a hit." I had recorded several things, and this one was called "Three O'Clock Blues." They said, "You have a hit." So then the people in the area of Memphis -- because I had been on the radio, I was a disk jockey there from '49 to '55 -- "You got a hit," they'd say. So, I would go as far as I could go (and still) get back to the radio station the next day. And when I learned about transcribing or recording your program earlier they would let me do it sometimes. I was becoming very popular, but it was mostly then black because we were -- remember -- still behind the Mason-Dixon Line and the only people that were allowed to come and see me were black. And usually my audience was my age and older, but I was a young guy then. I was in my 20s. Then as I got older so did my audience, and they stopped coming, the black ones. Then long after that I started hearing people talk about my guitar playing. I never heard it from the people that the journalists said talked about it. I always would hear it from a journalist. "Somebody said so-and-so said you can really play."

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 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 just reading it, and I didn't believe it, but I had a producer at the time named Bill Szymczyk. Bill knew John. So, one day we was in New York recording, and John was in town and he talked to Bill. And Bill said, "You got a guy over here that's real crazy about you," and told him who I was and I spoke to him. I never seen him personally, but I talked to him for about five or ten minutes.

I was just so happy to know there is a man that's the most popular in the world that knows my name -- not my music, just knows my name -- and I felt good.

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