“All of my relatives were very religious… I was ashamed, man, to sing anything other than spirituals around the home. [In] fact, I’d probably get whipped.” BB King reveals how his childhood affected his music in this 1972 BBC documentary – and what made him change his tune. “Before the army, I was a spiritual singer… but when I went in the army I started singing blues – and I think most guys do.”
The singer, who has died at the age of 89, went on to influence musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. He was ranked the third greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. Yet he started out as a farmhand.
In the archive footage – filmed at Command Studios in London during the recording sessions that led to the BB King in London album – he describes getting his first job as a singer. “They paid me 12 American dollars – that’s a lot of bread for a guy that’d been making 75 cents a day picking cotton.”
He also demonstrates the signature styles of his musical heroes on his guitar, a Gibson ES-355 he affectionately dubbed ‘Lucille’. “I was mad about Blind Lemon and Lonnie Johnson – just the sound that they had made me… tingle inside.” King recalls first hearing the electric guitar in 1942, and encountering the songs of Django Reinhardt. “I really fell in love with him; that really blew my mind. And from there, to this day, those people… have been my idols.”
Dismissing the way he plays as “not proper… guitar”, King describes how he developed his own style after attempting to imitate his cousin Booker White. “I’ve got stupid fingers – they just wouldn’t work – so to get the sound that he had, I would trill my hand. And I think over the years I’ve done pretty good with it.”
And in between the anecdotes, the documentary features the exquisite guitar playing that had him crowned the King of the Blues.
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