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B.B. King
B.B. King
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B.B. King Interview

King of the Blues

June 10, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

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  B.B. King

What was it like for you as a black kid growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s and '30s?

B.B. King: This is going to probably sound funny to you, but I didn't think I was any different from anyone else, other than I was a black kid instead of being a white kid, and it was a segregated society. We walked to school. The white kids had a school bus. And, I was crazy about Roy Rogers. I liked William Elliott. We called him Wild Bill, never did think of them as being white. They were cowboys, my heroes. I think, trying to answer your question, I had never experienced the North. I didn't know anything about the North. I didn't know anything about any other society other than what we lived in. So, the answer to your question? Truthfully? All right with me. It's just that some people had and some had not, and I wished I could have been one of those that had, now that's the truth.

What did you do as a kid?

B.B. King: I guess I was the average Afro-American boy or American boy really. I used to hunt, fish, played. I'd shoot marbles. I was never good at any of it. The school I went to, we didn't have a football team or a basketball team. We played something called base something. It was similar to football, with tackling and all that but you didn't carry a ball. In other words, whoever could catch you and touch you would put you "in prison," as we called it, and it was sort of a funny game when I think about it now.

You make it sound as if you had a pretty easy life when you were growing up, but the fact is you didn't. It was hard for you.

B.B. King: You never miss what you've never had. I never had any other life. I didn't know any other life.

I knew that if I went to town on a Saturday, which I did, and there was two fountains, one said "Black" and one said "White." I didn't think other than that if you want to stay out of trouble, leave the white one alone. I also noticed that when I went to the rest rooms there was one that said "White Men," "White Ladies" and "Colored." That's all I knew. I grew up with it. It wasn't like somebody just threw me down there and said, "You don't bother that..." But I was taught that in my early life. My family would always say -- because there was people being lynched around me. I haven't seen people be lynched, but I've seen them after they was. And I was told by some of the elders that, you know, "Unless you do certain things this can happen to you or that can happen to you. You don't bother the white ladies, you don't do this, you don't do that," and I learned that at an early age and to me it was just part of my training. I think this is why black people never did resist for such a long, long time because if there's any such thing as being brainwashed I was brainwashed, but it didn't bother me.

I remember once that a lady was kidnapped and finally she helped the people rob a bank. She had been brainwashed. I was the same, and I didn't know the difference until people started to tell me. I'd start to hear about the North, past what they call the Mason-Dixon Line. There you can do this or you can do that, just as a person.

We heard about New York. We heard about Los Angeles. We heard about some, but Chicago seemed to be the place you could go and get you a nice car. You could live anywhere you want. You can marry anybody you want. You could date anybody. I started to think about it a little. I'd see people then that had lived up there and had come down and they would be dressed nicely and I still had on my overalls. See overalls was a thing of wear that we had and you wore them every day. Every day you had overalls on. Overalls is jeans with a bib, to me. Well I'd wear them all the week. On Friday night wash them, and dry them and iron them on Saturday morning, and wear them to church on a Sunday. That's why today I say to myself, "I love to see the young people wear comfortable things." I have some jeans at the house that I wear them at the house, but I swore if God let me live there is two or three things I would never do again - wear overalls! I would always have me enough to eat if I needed it, and food that I liked to eat. Those three things I swore to myself. If God let me get to be grown, these three things I'm going to have.

What was hardest for you growing up?

B.B. King Interview Photo
B.B. King: Getting up in the morning and going to the fields. I never did like that. I'm a farmer at heart. I love farming. I think it's a great thing, producing food and seeing the trees grow. The grass and everything else is great once you get out there, but getting up that morning to go out and do it was hard.

In Mississippi in the Delta they used to have something called frost. They even gave the frost a name. They called it Jack Frost. It would be cold in the morning and I never have liked a lot of cold. I see why I'm not white, because I could not stand the cold. I walk around now, I see people -- especially white people -- in their shirt sleeves and I can have on something heavy and still be cold. I get on the airplane and freeze. The stewardess come up, male or female, "May I take your jacket?" "Yes, please." And then I'd freeze and go over and ask for it back. So I learned quite a few years ago, do not take off my jacket. Take off my overcoat but never my jacket, because you freeze.

Another place you go and you freeze is a casino. You go in a casino and they always keep it freezing. I don't see how people can enjoy staying in there. So it was always something that bothered me and it still do today. I'm 78 years old and still cold blooded, I guess. Reptiles have nothing on me. I don't want to bust nobody's balloon but they could have kept the air conditioning as far as I'm concerned. I live in Las Vegas, and the temperature gets to be 110 -- 115 sometimes -- and I rarely have the air conditioner below 75. That's generally my temperature that I like. I still like those old fans that blow the air. I like those and I'll give you guys the air conditioners.

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