BB King: In the court of the king

began his working life in childhood, as a cotton-picker. As he starts his British tour, the legendary blues guitarist tells Elaine Lipworth he's still just making a living
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The Independent Culture

BB King is widely regarded as the greatest living blues guitarist. Many contemporary rockers credit him as a formidable inspiration - from Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton to Bono. But the 80-year-old musician has a different perspective on his ability. "I don't think it's true," he says with a shrug. "Kids tease me. They start to bow. I'm not trying to stop them. I think I'm a pretty good musician. I don't think I'm the best, that's all."

When I point out that he's often hailed as the second most gifted guitarist of all time, after Jimi Hendrix, he shakes his head. "Well that's very nice, but I would put Eric Clapton and a few others ahead of me. Eric is the number one rock and roll guitarist and he also plays the blues better than a lot of us. And I can tell you this, I consider him as a great friend, he's a wonderful man, what we call in Mississippi 'free-hearted'."

The comment is typical of the musician, who seems happier discussing his friends than dwelling on his own accomplishments. But there is little argument about his influence. BB King has defined the blues for half a century. He is one of the most important electric guitarists in recent history. It may be a cliché to refer to an ageing musician as iconic or legendary, but there's no other way to describe the man who started out life as a dirt-poor sharecropper.

We are meeting in a Los Angeles hotel suite and King arrives in a wheelchair. He is a bulky figure with snowy hair. Diabetes makes it difficult for him to walk, but he eases himself up walks across the room and greets me with a hug (though this is the first time we've met).

The obvious discomfort he's suffering is the only ostensible sign that King is slowing down. He continues to give at least 200 performances a year, with his trademark Gibson guitar "Lucille" (all his guitars are called Lucille). "Each night I play as if I have never played the songs before," he says. "I play the way I'm feeling, not the way I recorded the songs. The music still feels good to me. I don't feel 80," he says, "I can hardly tell the difference. There are plans for me to cut down, but I'm happy doing what I do and if I don't keep on going, they'll forget me," he smiles.

That is unlikely to happen. He has sold more than 40 million records, there have been countless awards and there is interest in a possible Hollywood biopic. But King has an ambivalent attitude towards the accolades, which is understandable. He never received full recognition until the late Sixties, when British rock musicians began to appreciate his music. His 2000 album with Clapton, Riding With The King, won a Grammy - one of 14 he's received. But apart from one monster hit, "The Thrill Is Gone", in 1970, none of his songs achieved mainstream chart success.

"I'm not white, I'm a black guy. White groups from England, they're going to get played and people are going to look to them before me. They have all the radio and TV stations, something people like me have never had access to."

King has a pragmatic approach to collaborating with big names. Eric Clapton is one of the stars who recorded duets with him for his most recent album, BB King &Friends 80 (which won a Grammy). The other musicians included Van Morrison, Roger Daltrey, Elton John and Gloria Estefan.

King was born Riley B King in 1925, in a sharecropper's cabin in Indianola, Mississippi. His father, Albert, and mother, Nora Ella, divorced when he was four. The little boy was soon picking cotton for 35 cents a day.

His passion for music began in church. "My mother was very religious and I enjoyed church a lot too, specially when the girls were there," he says.

The local preacher became his mentor. "He played the first electric guitar I heard. We didn't have electricity till I was 16, so even if I could have afforded an electric guitar, I wouldn't have been able to play one."

King, an only child, was nine when his mother became ill, probably with pneumonia, although there was never a clear diagnosis. She was 25. "She called me to her death-bed. She told me: 'If you treat people nice, you will always have somebody to help you, there will always be somebody on your side.' She wanted me to be a preacher," he says, "but I believe she would've allowed me to pursue any career, as long as it wasn't hurting anyone."

After her death, King stayed at the plantation. He earned his keep, milking cows and doing chores for the owner. "I made $15 a month and that's how I paid for my first guitar."

King moved in with his father for a while, then at 15 left home and got a job as a tractor driver on another plantation. "I never stopped playing music," he says. "I used to sit on the street corners after work. Usually I would sing gospel songs. But if I sang a gospel song, they'd pat me on the head, but never put anything in the hat. When a guy asked me to play something bluesy, often I never even knew what that was, but I would change 'my lord' to 'my baby'; then they would always give me a tip.

He began playing black clubs, but struggled financially, because even in his own community, there was a mixed reception to his music. "A lot of my people from home, from Mississippi, got on my case and would say, 'You're playing the devil's music.' I would think to myself, 'When I was pickin' cotton, was I pickin' the devil's cotton?' I was doing the same as I'm doing now, just making a living."

After the war, King moved to Memphis, where he became a DJ. Initially "Blues Boy", his name was shortened to BB. He started performing regularly and was soon making a name in the American R&B world.

Married twice, he has 15 children and has had "many" relationships. Slightly defensive on the subject of fatherhood, he says the constant pressure of touring made family responsibilities and commitments difficult. "When I look back, I have no regrets. I didn't do dope other than liquor, like many others did," says King, who stopped drinking nearly 20 years ago. "I smoked cigarettes, but only the ones that Uncle Sam taxed."

Based in Las Vegas, he still spends a large part of the year on a tour bus and maintains that a rigorous schedule has always been essential to stay in the public eye. He's toured with Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and U2. "I have no envy at all of those people. Thank God for them," says King. "I'm grateful for the ones that do have a liking for me, they opened many doors."

Do you think white middle-class people can really play the blues? "Many people have said to me, 'do you have to pick cotton and suffer to play the blues?' And my answer is 'No. But if you have, it helps." He roars with laughter.

"I was told that the blues started with the slaves. Slavemasters were teaching Christianity to the blacks. They thought if they were Christians they wouldn't steal or run away. But some were going to be sold, so they didn't care and would sing about things that made them happy. Or to let the others know the boss was coming. They would have parties and sing the blues. I guess I'm a disciple of some of those slaves."

BB King has certainly experienced the blues. Apart from personal struggles, he has witnessed rampant racism, even a lynching. "It hurt," he says. "It's like seeing a lion eat someone, what can you do about it? You don't want to get eaten. There were cruel white people, but there were others who were kind."

A spiritual man, King says his mother's values are his principles. "I can't think of anyone I've mistreated. I've always thought I am my brother's keeper. I believe there's a 'great spirit' that takes care of all of us."

BB King plays Sheffield Arena tonight and tours to 4 April