“I’m Not Retiring Until HE Retires Me”: Thoughts on B. B. King’s Passing

“I’m Not Retiring Until HE Retires Me”: Thoughts on B. B. King’s Passing

As news stories continue to commemorate the life of B. B. King, I would like to share some personal recollections.

In 2004 we made B. B. King an Honorary Professor of Southern Studies. Sure, he already held honorary doctorates from Tougaloo College, Yale University, the Berklee College of Music, Rhodes College, and Mississippi Valley State University, but we felt that The University of Mississippi needed to formally recognize him for all he has done for us.

At the end of 1982 and beginning of 1983, B. B. King donated about 8,000 sound recordings (LPs, 45s, 78s, and even a few wax cylinders) from his personal record collection to the University of Mississippi. This donation helped establish the creation of the Blues Archive. Because of this, I indirectly have B. B. King to thank for my job!

One can potentially learn a lot about you by looking at your record collection. When I first saw Mr. King’s impressive donation to the Archive, I was initially struck by how diverse the holdings were. There are all the usual suspects in terms of blues recordings, but King listened to a lot of jazz and popular music as well. The collection contains over 40 Django Reinhardt recordings; King often listed Django as a major inspiration for him wanting to play guitar. There are also comedy albums by Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, movie soundtracks, recorded sermons, The Poetry of Maya Angelou, examples of various world musics . . . even The War of the Worlds. Of particular note are a large number of foreign language courses on record – Spanish, Russian, Danish, Serbo-Croatian, and more. B. B. King told me that when he went on his first world tour he wanted to be able to greet audiences with basic phrases in the native language of the countries he visited. He also told me of the importance of education, saying that while on tour he enrolled in correspondence courses. He had a voracious appetite for knowledge; he wasn’t going to let a demanding tour schedule keep him from learning as much as he could.

Back to that day in 2004, when we honored Mr. King with an honorary professorship . . . I was to conduct a public interview with him on stage in Nutt Auditorium in the Department of Music on our campus. I was pretty nervous about this event. The auditorium was packed with not just fans, but a large number of blues scholars. The event was part of our second annual Blues Symposium, and there were multiple heavyweights from the world of blues scholarship in the room. I was worried about asking something stupid and looking like a fool in front of a very knowledgeable audience. To top it off, B. B. King’s bus was running late. My nerves were starting to get the better of me, when he finally arrived. He immediately set me at ease with a warm smile and firm handshake. I had a number of prepared questions, but I just threw them out and we launched into a natural conversation that turned out much better than what I had planned!

At the end of our public conversation, King took questions from the audience. One young man asked B. B. when he was planning to retire. King responded by pointing up toward the sky, saying, “I don’t plan to retire until HE retires me.”

Well, that sad day has now come. B. B. King will truly be remembered as the King of the Blues for his staggering influence on countless musicians in a performing career lasting over half a century. He will likewise be remembered for his warm and gracious spirit and encouragement of others.

With love,

Greg Johnson

Blues Curator and Associate Professor

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All of the recordings B. B. King donated are available to the public for listening. You can browse the collection through our catalog.

You can also browse our large collection of B. B. King photographs.

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We would love to hear your personal stories about B. B. King. If you attended one of the shows he played on campus or were here when he donated his record collection to the University, please tell us about it in the comments section below.

4 Replies to ““I’m Not Retiring Until HE Retires Me”: Thoughts on B. B. King’s Passing”

  1. In 1968 I wrote an article about B.B. for a short-lived Jazz magazine. Apparently he liked it as he had his manager call me to tell me/ask me if I had the time, B.B. would like to meet me. At that time I was the VP at CBS/Epic Records, a company that B.B. did not record for. I went to meet him in his dressing room. He was playing in NYC but I can’t remember exactly where.

    I was ushered in and when he saw me he asked if I could wait a few minutes. He was busy talking to a young man at the time. It turned out that he was receiving French lessons from the young man in exchange for guitar lessons. When we got to talking, he told me that the article that I had written was the nicest that anyone had ever written and I told him that it was distinctly my pleasure. We spent some more time together, mostly small talk and said that we would try to get together again in the very near future.

    Now we move the clock ahead and one day I get a call from B’s producer/engineer Bill Szymcyk. He said that they had just finished recording an album that very day and that B. wanted me to listen to one track and give my opinion.

    The track was “The Thrill Is Gone” and Bill said that B. was concerned that he might lose some of his core audience because this was quite different from what he usually recorded.

    I said that in my humble opinion, this would change B.B. and his career forever, as this would cross-over and he would be at a completely different level. No more “joints,” big venues to come.

    And thankfully, I was right and the rest is history. RIP B. It was a privilege to have known you.

  2. i wrote this poem a year ago april upon hearing about the night an audience booed bb in saint louis – thanks for giving it a read – truly john kruth, nyc

    the night they booed b.b. king

    the night they booed b.b. king

    my heart did not sing, but sank

    as those thankless fools

    denigrated the blues legend

    whose hands once danced

    like lightning, but now tighten

    with arthritis around the neck of his guitar

    they disrespected the great star

    of the blues and accused him

    of robbing their dough

    cause he could no longer blow

    like he used to

    ok, it may be true

    but you don’t boo b.b. king

    it ain’t the right thing to do

    my heart did not sing

    the night they booed b.b. king

    (april 8th, 2014, in the city of st. louis)

    but panged and clanged

    like a broken string

    they call themselves human beings?

    they don’t belong in the man’s company

    his riff

    (no matter how aged and worn it may be)

    is his gift

    which helps save us

    from ourselves

    after decades of smoldering blues

    the bastards shout the thrill is gone!

    the fire’s gone out!

    get off the stage!

    they rage, disrespecting his age

    the great man is eighty-eight!

    so they took action

    wanting satisfaction

    for the money they paid

    and like a mob,

    they were determined

    to lynch the legend

    from the nearest traffic light

    or at least yelp his shortcomings

    to a million know-nothings

    on their faceless facebook

    i-pads and computers

    a bunch of uptight musical tourists

    bad rapped the blues boy because they say

    he’s not what he used to be

    but when they look in the mirror

    what do they see?

    certainly not the wizard

    who harnessed electricity

    and infused it with emotion

    deep and blue and eternal

    as the ocean

    as he held his beloved lucille

    did they stop for a minute

    to wonder how he must feel?

    after all he gave

    that’s no way to behave

    you don’t boo b.b. king

    it ain’t the right thing to do!

    – john kruth – april 2014

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