Irish Times : Part 2 - BB King of Americavendredi 22 juillet 1994
Source : Irish Times
THIS desire to escape from poverty is clearly the most crucial link between B.B. King and Elvis Presley.Indeed, the memory of his poverty blighted plantation background has left B.B. King unwilling to wearoveralls or jeans in public a tendency also exhibited by Elvis after he moved from his "white trash"background in Tupelo to Memphis, Tennessee. But surely the point is that Elvis unlike B.B. King neverreally did have to consider seriously going back to wearing overalls ? And what would B.B. say to thoseblack radicals who would argue that the divergent paths taken by both singers savagely highlights the social inequities in America specifically in relation to blacks and whites ? Did Elvis becoming "king of rock ’n’ roll"ever make B.B. angry ?
"No, why should it ? He was another American and though I didn’t know what you just told me, about Elvisand jeans, that really does show you where we both were coming from," he says. "And I didn’t pay anyattention to what colour he was ; I just wished I could have had his talents, and advisers. But I was neverangry, or jealous.
"Let’s face it, in America there are something like 227 million people and only 25 million are black, so what’s the point in my being angry about that ? All the radio stations, practically are owned by whites and at least90 per cent of the TV stations. That’s just the way things are in America."
One suspects it is comments such as this which have led to many black radicals condemning B.B. King down through the years, particularly because he always refused to record "political" songs. More than this, culturalanalysts such as Nelson George have also argued that the gradual reappropriation of blues, by whites aprocess in which King is seen to have participated has led to its silencing as the "voice of the blackneighbourhood and its subjugation by rap, which is obviously a more political genre. Likewise, it has beensuggested that blacks en masse now reject blues because it too sharply reminds them of a past they’d rather forget.
"Let’s face it, as far as the blacks were concerned, blues was dead long before rap," he says. "And some of them do say it’s a legacy from our past we should be forgetting, but I try to tell them that not singing, andnot talking about our slave past ain’t gonna make it go away. It happened and we should face it, rather thandeny it. But I tend not to listen to the kind of people who say these things. Same goes for those who say Ishould have done more political songs. The point is that they weren’t in the background raising money, like I was, to help the cause. But what I did I ain’t about to list off here to you today, because that would seem like blowing my own horn. All I know is that what I did was right for me.
That said, couldn’t it also be suggested that B.B. King’s single most powerful political gesture over the past40 years is that, for white audiences in particular he popularised, yet did not bastardise, the blues, or betray the roots it developed among black and white races in America ?
"If you’re saying that, I thank you, but let me say this to you before we end the interview," he says, clearlycraving to communicate core truths in conversation the same way hue communicates through his music : "When I was first playing the blues as a professional, my fans and the fans of the blues was my age, and older. And as I got older they got older too, up to a point where, when they was no longer living, the audience for ourmusic began to shrink way down to next to nothing.
"But now there is that new audience of white people, so the blues is very much alive now, even if it’s in adifferent way than before. And I gotta tell you that, since my association with U2, that audience for my music has grown much larger among white people, especially young white people. And I’m even happier to tellyou that it is not unusual for me to see young black teenagers in that audience too. And they come up to me and say ’Hi. B ! How’ya doin’ ?’ And they did not do that before my association with U2. And that’shappened because young black teenagers like U2 and know that if U2 thought enough of me to work withme, then those kids who were fans of U2 automatically recognised me as being a part of what U2 liked, and where they come from. So, now they come along to check out my music."
As such, does B.B. King now have the kind of economic freedom that is denied to many of his fellow black Americans so much so that he need never again worry about having to go back to wearing overalls ?
"Let me put it to you this way," he says, laughing, "I work today, just as much as I always have averaging 200 to 275 concerts a year, but I will tell you that if I didn’t want to do it, I don’t have to do it ! Does that answer your question ? I’m well off enough, today, to be able to tell you that."