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B.B. blue? Maybe a bit

The legendary musician says those in his particular musical genre deserve more respect -- in the form of airplay.

June 27, 2005|Shelia Byrd | Associated Press

INDIANOLA, Miss. — Through his agile fingers, which have spent decades making love to the taut strings of his guitar, B.B. King becomes immersed in his music.

The high-pitched wail of the notes he coaxes out of the instrument, nicknamed Lucille, is salve to the soul of the nearly 80-year-old bluesman, who is preparing to kick off a world tour.

It's been a good year for King, named by Rolling Stone magazine as the third-greatest guitarist of all time. He's recording a new album of duets with Elton John, Eric Clapton and Gloria Estefan, a memorabilia book bearing his name soon will be released, and he recently broke ground on the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretative Center in this small Mississippi Delta town.

Yet King, acclaimed around the world, still laments what he believes is a lack of respect for blues music in America, where radio stations mostly play hip-hop, pop and rock.

"We get treated poorly," he says. "I'm thinking about the younger ones, who are coming along today, not B.B. We've had several superstars, like the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, like the young Robert Cray, and they don't get play. They don't get exposed."

Blues music is a historical form, inspiring rock guitarists such as Clapton and Jeff Beck, but radio stations don't consider it as commercially viable as other genres, says Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor of Rolling Stone.

"That certainly doesn't mean it's not significant," DeCurtis says. "How much jazz gets played on the radio?"

Floyd Lieberman, King's manager, says there's been a slight resurgence of the blues with the advent of XM Satellite Radio, on which King serves as Mayor of Bluesville.

The blues channel has 4 million listeners, Lieberman says, but "Jackson, Miss., stations play more blues than New York. That's the problem."

At his recent museum groundbreaking, King took a break from his fans, finding a comfortable chair.

He reminisced about his early years as a laborer on a cotton plantation in the heart of the Delta. And without bitterness, he explained how difficult life was back then for the man born Riley B. King on Sept. 16, 1925.

"I was a regular hand when I was 7. I picked cotton. I drove tractors," said King, who now lives in Nevada. "Children grew up not thinking that this is what they must do. We thought this was the thing to do to help your family."

King envisions his museum, to be at the site of the brick cotton gin where he once worked, as a conduit for Delta youth trying to escape the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. Many in the community hold up King as the standard of success.

As a young boy in the 1950s, longtime friend Carver Randle remembers seeing King drive his Cadillac around Indianola when the musician was in town visiting relatives.

"There was a time when nobody, black people or white people, cared for the blues. And in spite of that, B.B. stuck with the blues," says Randle, now an attorney. "Anybody ... would do well to just emulate what B.B. has done."

The museum, to be finished by 2007, will be a $10-million, 18,000-square-foot edifice, showcasing the various phases of King's career with a state-of-the-art theater, a studio and artifacts.

King's long career took off in 1948 after he performed on a radio program on KWEM out of west Memphis. He's been cutting tracks ever since -- among the best known are "The Thrill Is Gone" in 1970 and "Three O'Clock Blues" in 1951.

In 2000, he collaborated with Clapton to record "Riding With the King."

He's made countless appearances in Europe, where, he says, the people have long memories.

"Tunes that we made many years ago, they know them today. They don't belittle you because you sing gospel or you sing blues," he said.

Lieberman, King's manager for 41 years, says the duets album, to be released before the musician's birthday, won't all be blues songs. But King doesn't believe that should be interpreted as infidelity: "Who said I'm supposed to do nothing but traditional blues? Blues players like to hear other things like other people."

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