Tag Archives: jazz

B.B. King: Travels with Lucille

Local 71 (Memphis, TN) member B.B. King and his guitar Lucille have traveled to 90 different countries together.

It’s a freezing winter night in the1950s in Twist, Arkansas. In a little club, people are dancing to a young blues guitarist. The warmth of their moving bodies heats up the place, as does a small kerosene stove in the corner. Two fans begin pushing one another over a woman named Lucille who works in the nightclub. They knock over the stove, and a river of flames engulfs the place.

People scramble for the doors. Once outside, the guitarist realizes that he has forgotten his $30 acoustic guitar inside the building. He rushes back into the searing heat. “It was hard to get instruments and I thought only of getting my guitar out of there,” says the guitarist, who goes by the name B.B. King these days. King, a member of Local 71 (Memphis, TN), named his guitar after the woman to remind himself never to do something so foolish as rushing into a burning building to save an instrument. These days, a wiser King, who is currently touring with Lucille XVI, would only commit a similar act of bravery to save a human life.

King’s 51 years as a recording musician and tour stops in 90 countries have ensured that Lucille is a name familiar to blues fans worldwide. Lucille has become a signature model guitar manufactured by Gibson to King’s specifications, and she’s taken the musician from the juke joints of the South to Carnegie Hall.

Money In the Hat

Today, King, who once made 35 cents a day picking cotton, is a multimillionaire as a result of his music. His most successful album, “Riding with the King,” in collaboration with Eric Clapton, came out when King was almost 75. It sold 4.5 million copies worldwide, and it’s estimated that, over the course of his career, King has sold over 40 million records. Mere financial gain, though, is not all that King has earned from his particular version of the blues. He has also been awarded five honorary doctorates from institutions as prestigious as Yale University and the Berklee School of Music.

These accomplishments are nothing short of amazing, considering that King started out on the street corners of his hometown of Indianola, Mississippi. In those days, King aspired to be a gospel musician, idolizing a local preacher who played guitar in church. Experience on the corners, however, sent him down a different path.

“When people would ask me to play a tune, if I played a gospel tune, they would always praise me highly, but hardly put anything in the hat,” he recalls. “People that asked me to play blues would always put something in the hat. That’s why I’m a blues singer.”

It didn’t take long for King to outgrow street corners. At 20, he traveled on the back of a grocery truck to Memphis, carrying only his guitar and $2.50 in his pocket. A few years later, King landed his own 10-minute radio show on WDIA, called the “King Spot.” On every show, he sang the sponsor’s jingle, “Pepticon, Pepticon, sure is good/ You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood.” Thus, the Pepticon Boy, as he was known, took the first step on his path toward musical legend.

New Opportunities, New Name

The “chairman of the board” belts out the blues in concert for dedicated fans.

King’s show was so popular that he was soon offered a job as a DJ. He played records by artists such as Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, who would one day invite him to share “booze and broads” in Las Vegas. Before he could achieve the level of success that allowed him to hang out with Sinatra, he was told to change his name from Riley King to something catchy. For a while, he performed as Beale Street Blues Boy, then just Blues Boy King, until he finally shortened it to B.B. King.

To many black teenagers in the 1960s, blues was their parents’ music, largely a thing of the past. One of King’s hardest moments was at the Royal Theater in Baltimore, Maryland where he was booed by a young crowd that wanted to see the hot young acts on the bill, Sam Cooke and The Drifters. It stung King to be treated poorly, but as a sharecropper’s son from the South, he learned how to achieve his goals in spite of people’s cruelty.

“You knew it was something you had to do,” he says, likening that moment in Baltimore to racial difficulties from his childhood. “You’d go ahead and do the best you could, thinking you’re by yourself, that nobody cares. Life goes on.”

That same determination characterized King’s early career. He first recorded in 1949, including a song named after the first of the two wives he has had, “Miss Martha King.” It wasn’t until 1952, when he released “Three O’Clock Blues,” that King’s music caught on. The song, which was recorded in the back room of a Memphis YMCA, put places like Harlem’s Apollo Theater on his touring itinerary. King developed a distinct musical style in the ’50s through constant touring. In 1956 he played 342 shows, taking the sounds of influences such as T-Bone Walker and Blind Lemon Jefferson and combining them with other musicians he loved, such as jazz guitarists Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian.

Growing Reputationand Rapport

This extended period of success culminated in the 1965 album, “Live at the Regal.” The album is still a favorite with fans and critics alike, partly because of the precision of the guitar work, but also because of King’s rapport with the crowd. Some of King’s most important fans at the time were the white rock musicians who borrowed heavily from the blues to develop their sounds. In a 1966 Crawdaddy interview Mike Bloomfield, guitarist for the Butterfield Blues Band, said, “B.B. King is one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived and more people should listen to B.B. King’s records.”

Legendary rock promoter Bill Graham took Bloomfield’s advice and booked King to play at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. When King pulled up to the club, he thought he was in the wrong place because of all the long-haired white kids milling around outside. He worried that he might get booed. King didn’t usually drink before shows, but was so nervous that he asked Graham to get him a drink. Graham got a whole bottle of whiskey for the anxious artist.

After a short introduction by Graham, who called him “the chairman of the board,” the crowd went wild. They gave King his first standing ovation that night. The 43-year-old blues giant was so touched, he cried on stage. In a recent PBS documentary on the blues, King still got choked up recalling the moment.

It was a turning point for King that signaled the direction his career has headed in to this day. King says that, in his early days, 90% of his audience was black and his age or older. Today, King says his audience is much younger than he is and 95% white. This is partly a result of musicians who have incorporated King’s blues into their own music.

King is thankful for the help he received from devoted fans such as Eric Clapton and Eric Burdon.

“People didn’t value what we did as anything special until the British groups started playing what I call Real Important Blues, and white people started to pay attention to it,” he recently told The New York Times. “These groups played it, supported it, and opened alot of doors for B.B. King and a lot of people like him,” the article’s author commented.

Strength in Numbers

B.B. King released his most popular and succesful album at the young age of 75.

A lot of doors were opened for King by the AFM as well. The blues chairman joined the union in 1949 because it promised “better wages.” He is most grateful, however, for the protection the union offered him.

“It’s an old and true saying, ‘there’s strength in numbers,'” says King. “Sometimes you’d go places and people wouldn’t pay you. The union was good then, because they’d put them on the unfair list and nobody would go and play for them.”

While the AFM helped King deal with the less pleasant aspects of the music business, the MP3 player that travels everywhere with him helps remind him why he chose to be a professional musician early in life. He keeps the music of his influencesWalker and Jefferson, as well as Lonnie Johnson and Muddy Watersclose at hand so that he can revitalize his passion for the blues at the push of a button. King says that listening frequently to his idols ensures that his music does not depart from what he cares most about.

King’s performances today give no indication that his success has taken away his feeling for the blues. Just like he did long ago that night in Twist, Arkansas, he makes people want to dance. When he’s up on stage, he plays for the crowd, not for himself. That’s why, from a sitting position, he and Lucille still have the power to bring people to their feet.

King says he performs every song as if he hasn’t played it before. This simple yet highly effective philosophy, shared with his band to prevent songs he has played for decades from becoming stale, underlines why he has continued to nurture an avid international following.

“Play it like you feel it,” he says, repeating what he tells his band. “Don’t try to play it like you recorded it 10 years ago. Play it today, like you feel it now.”

Visit the official B.B. King Web site at www.bbking.com.
oscar peterson

Oscar Peterson: The Life & Times of a Jazz Legend

Last year, Exhibition Hall A in Ottawa’s National Library of Canada featured a technologically impressive display devoted entirely to the country’s ambassador of jazz, Oscar Peterson, Local 406-119 (Montreal, Quebec) and Local 149 (Toronto, Ontario). The exhibit showcased the Montreal native’s impact on six decades of jazz music. Historic programs and photographs of early concerts shared space with computerized displays. Interactive CD-ROMs performed rapid-fire real-time transcriptions of Peterson’s improvisations, while Yamaha digital pianos offered a virtual over-the-shoulder view of his phenomenal keyboard technique.

No small tribute, all of this, for a jazz pianist who might easily have never even become one. Oscar Peterson’s career actually started off radically different from where it eventually led, beginning firmly in the classics: Beethoven, Bach, and all those endless technical finger exercises, under the tutelage of Hungarian classical pianist Paul deMarky.

Classical Foundations

“I only first really heard jazz somewhere between the ages of seven and 10,” explains Peterson, who was born in 1925 into a musical home. “My older brother Fred, who was actually a better pianist than I was, started playing various new tunes–well, they were new for me, anyway–and I didn’t know what they were at first, but I knew I liked them. They turned out to be jazz tunes that were popular at the time: Duke Ellington and Art Tatum, who frightened me to death with his technique. So, there really wasn’t a classic ‘defining moment;’ I just got into it the more I listened to the likes these performers, and decided that was what I wanted to do.”

Peterson feels quite strongly that his background of classical training was invaluable in helping his jazz technique and interpretation skill.” “Harmonically and rhythmically, it’s indispensable. I recommend it today any time I hold a seminar.” At York University–one of 16 institutions which have bestowed upon Peterson honorary degrees, and of which he is currently chancellor–he encouraged all the pianists to study classically first. “It gives you a much better insight into the instrument,” he says.

The early classical training also aids another facet of Peterson’s career, which he says is growing in importance as he gets older. “Traveling by air these days is just so stressful,” he explains. “I’m interested in doing more music writing, and I’m devoting more time to that than I have before.”

This, of course, is not meant to imply a new development: Oscar Peterson the pianist has long been known to his fans as Oscar Peterson the composer. His countless waltzes and ballads have become the staple of pianists everywhere; he has undertaken commissions for ballet scores and televised productions; and “Trail of Dreams Suite,” a musical depiction of the coast-to-coast Trans-Canada Trail, was premiered in April 2000. An earlier composition, “Hymn to Freedom,” became an anthem for the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, to which Peterson admits no conscious effort on his part.

Changing Times

“I wrote ‘Hymn to Freedom’ because my then dear friend and manager Norman Granz wanted something for a record date that had a true blues feeling. I sat down, started to play, and we recorded it with the trio. The lyrics were only added later. So, at the time, it wasn’t intended to be an anthem. After it was adopted by the civil rights movement, I felt very honored–and I’m still very honored and moved every time I hear it.”

The situation in Canada for African-Canadian performers in the 50s and 60s had many parallels with the situation south of the border. “There were certain closed doors, let’s put it that way,” Peterson says. “I was bothered particularly by the fact that I didn’t see many nonwhite performers on television and in commercials. I undertook to speak with Roy McMurtry, who is now Chief Justice of Ontario. He called the heads of various companies together, and we worked to resolve the problem.”

Downplaying his own role as a prominent performer, Peterson defers with typical modesty the suggestion that he was a key influence in helping resolve racial problems in Canada. “Oh, I wouldn’t take any bow for that alone,” he laughs. “I just did my best.”


In doing his best over several decades of music making, Oscar Peterson has also been largely responsible for the enduring appeal of jazz. He attributes the staying power of jazz as a musical language to one simple word: honesty. “I think when a musician plays jazz, you’re hearing the honest insides of that person. I’m not being critical of any other form of music, but some of today’s music is so patented and predetermined by people who are not really musicians.” Is there a definite difference, then, between the listening experience of a jazz concert and that of a rock concert? “By all means,” Peterson says. “Not to throw stones, but when listeners go to a jazz concert, they know they’re going to hear the musician, and what he or she is thinking and feeling at that particular time.”

Since his “discovery” in 1947 by Norman Granz, Oscar Peterson has amassed an incredible legacy of recorded work with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Fred Astaire, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker, among countless other greats. His recordings have been lauded with awards for decades, as has his solo career. Past albums have earned him eight GRAMMYs, seven Hall of Fame Awards, and the Downbeat Award for Best Jazz Pianist 13 times–and this is barely scratching the surface. But it is with his trio–and, more lately, quartet–that he feels he has expressed his musical personality best.

“The jazz trio is my lifeline, and always has been,” he declares without hesitation, citing the satisfaction that comes from communication among members of a smaller group. “I think the smaller format works best for me, and probably also shows me in my best light. I enjoy solo piano, but I still prefer to work with a group because it’s exhilarating and challenging at the same time.”

Think of the word museum and the typical mental picture is a musty, dusty hall filled with relics of things long gone: dinosaurs, or King Tut. It therefore speaks volumes of Oscar Peterson that an entire museum exhibit was dedicated to his life and workwhile he is not only very much alive, but actively making music.

New Challenges

The technical wonders that comprised the Library of Canada exhibit reflect the fact that Peterson, while firmly part of jazz’s “old school,” nevertheless has a firm grasp on the value of technology–and he delights in the opportunities it presents him in his work. He recently introduced a CD-ROM containing a wealth of biographical information and photos, and his Web site, www.oscarpeterson.com, illustrates his willingness to embrace the latest advances.

These same technologies aid him in his composition: he boasts a home studio filled with the latest synthesizers, sequencers, and computers. “All these tools represent a stupendous advantage over how people used to write,” he asserts. “For example, I’m not an orchestrator, but when I write something which will be for orchestra, I don’t have to wonder how a tune is going to hold up in the orchestra as opposed to a jazz quartet. Electronic keyboards can also help me figure out different voicings: I can hear exactly how a particular passage would sound when played by a muted trumpet or a saxophone, and I can hear the difference between the two.”

Technology ends where performance begins, however, and Peterson draws the line at the door of the recording studio. “I don’t mind editing so far as improving on the sound from a technological standpoint, but I think there’s definitely a point beyond which you should not go,” he states firmly. “This thing about making recordings in segments and putting them together? That I don’t buy. After all, you don’t get a chance to do that in a concert, you can’t take one part and say this is better than that part, and do it over 15 times. It’s a performance. A recording is also a performance, so I don’t think it’s fair to do that on recordings, either.”

Becoming a recent father, relatively late in life presented Peterson with very different challenges, but ones he feels have changed him for the better. “I’m a more concerned parent now than I may have been years ago; I’m also very much helped by the fact that my daughter is such a congenial young lady.” Not surprisingly, Celine, now 10, is discovering an interest in all types of music, studying flute and piano. Peterson handily anticipates the obvious question: “No, I haven’t influenced her. I try to stay out of the educational end of it, and be only a listener.”

The Gold Card

Peterson believes his daughter, like her father before her, should be allowed the freedom to discover her own path. Having said that, he also points out that good guidance is a valuable element in anyone’s life. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he has steadfastly remained a member of the AFM, when so many other big names in the business have let their union membership lapse.

“When I was just starting out back in the 40s, the Montreal union made it possible for me to earn a decent living. There were certain rules the union would not back down on, and the nightclubs had to adhere to them. Some nightclubs were actually trying to get away with not paying the musicians what they should have been paying, which was union scale.”

Peterson says he has always had the solid support of Montreal Local 406-119, and he is also a longtime member of Local 149 in Toronto. “The Montreal union was very good to me; as a matter of fact, they made me a lifetime memberyou know, giving me the “gold card!” And I’ve always respected that. The Federation is something musicians should use for their own protection, but also, almost selfishly, for their own benefit. We as performers should have a voice, because there are enough of us around, and we’re doing all the work!”


Supportand friendshipcame also in immeasurable strength from Norman Granz, who recently passed away, and who Peterson calls his greatest influence. “Norman not only guided my career in the jazz world, but was more importantly a very close friend. It was through him that I got the opportunity to work with some of the greatest names in music. He was a man with many facets, and he had great respect for any kind of talent.”

It was Granz, in fact, who took Peterson to his first Vladimir Horowitz concert. “Norman always took the jazz element very seriously, and wanted it to be on a par with classical music.”

At the suggestion that he has contributed to this elevation of jazz into a serious form of artistic expression, Peterson once again modestly deflects the lion’s share of the credit. “I have been very honored to receive the recognition of various classical societies,” he acknowledges. “It would have given my late teacher, Mr. Paul deMarky, great satisfaction. As for my part,” he laughs, “I’ve just tried my best.”