When CNN, the channel on which nightly talk show Larry King Live racked up 25 years on air, described its legendary host and US TV icon as the “Muhammad Ali of the broadcast interview”, they weren’t talking about his aggressive knockout punches. King had a roundhouse or two in his arsenal, particularly in his many interviews with world leaders and business figures, but he was better known for his subtle skill in luring his interviewers in, probing them with subtle jabs and encouraging them to open up their most vulnerable points.
Among his 50,000 interviews over six decades he particularly enjoyed his friendly sparring with musicians, who were often more open than usual thanks to the vast audience and Peabody-winning status of the show, and who responded well to King’s softly-softly, minimum research approach. “I’m not a fan of the music,” King told Vice in 2014, admitting that he didn’t “get” The Rolling Stones and found Bruce Springsteen’s classic 1978 album ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ “kind of weird”, yet some of his most famous interviews were with rock and pop stars. Lady Gaga wore braces in honour of “King Larry” for her remote interview about lupus, cocaine and Michael Jackson tours that never happened in 2010. Slash spilled the beans on his split from Guns N’ Roses to King in 2013. And, when King presided over a semi-reunion of The Beatles in 2007, the man who was proud of his lack of pre-interview preparation managed to call Ringo “George”.
Frank Sinatra’s final major interview in 1988 was a major coup for King – Sinatra rarely gave interviews, but granted King three full hours to talk about his lingering stage fright, kiss-and-tell books and his support for George W. Bush. Indeed, those stars that were particularly uncomfortable on camera, liable to clam up in the standard chat show five-minute slot, benefitted from the time and space King gave over to his leisurely interrogations. Over 40 minutes in his sensitive hands in 1999, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince transformed from monosyllabic pop squiggle into a relatable artist with a very human struggle, a prime example of King’s ability to make the camera disappear. That same year he devoted an entire hour to interviewing Madonna, a session that, during its more personal delves into Kabbalah (a mystical offshoot of Judaism), family and relationships, felt more like watching a paternal lunch than a TV grilling.
In 2015, Morrissey granted King his first in-person interview in 10 years on Larry King Now – “because of your reputation,” he told King – and made headlines worldwide by opening up about his cancer diagnosis, The Smiths (“We were very young, we didn’t know what we were doing and we didn’t like each other that much, so it was nice when it finished”), the “black dog” of depression and having his ”rear cleavage” invaded by San Francisco airport security. Controversies, as usual, abounded – Moz described suicide as “admirable” and commented “Obama, is he white inside?…I think he probably is” – thanks to King’s amenable probing at a time when Morrissey’s guard was well and truly up.
After leaving his CNN show in 2010 to be replaced by Piers Morgan and his one-man personality vacuum, the freedom of King’s online show Larry King Now for Ora TV allowed him to indulge his fascination less with music and more with musicians and their culture. He regularly quizzed some of the most prominent rappers of the past 10 years, from Tyler, The Creator to T.I.. He sang in Auto-Tune with T-Pain, explained that wrestling is fixed to Flo Rida and told Ice Cube that you can’t dance to rap. There was an unforced easiness to many of his later interviews, particularly with musicians he’d spoken to numerous times; following a wide-ranging interview covering Sandy Hook, racism and international politics, there was a real thrill in his eyes as he duetted with Stevie Wonder on an impromptu and unrehearsed ‘For Once In My Life’ in 2013. And he claimed to have got stoned just from being near Snoop Dogg in 2010, when the pair went for a spin in Snoop’s “lo-to-the-flo’” yellow Pontiac on Larry King Live.
Snoop later taught King to rap on his own online show, a sign of how playful and unpretentious King could be, and of the fondness performers from all genres and eras had for him. The loss of King should really awaken American audiences to the fact that Carpool Karaoke won’t cut it.