King, B. B. (Riley B.)

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King, B. B. (Riley B.)

King, B. B. (Riley B.), emphatic American blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter; b. near Itta Bena, Miss., Sept. 16, 1925. Widely regarded as the foremost blues guitarist of his time, King popularized blues music, placing 75 recordings on the R&B charts and 36 on the pop charts between 1951 and 1992, including his signature song, “The Thrill Is Gone/’ He was noted for his stinging, vibrato-laden, single-note guitar solos that distinguished his eclectic big band arrangements of blues songs, and for his spirited singing, in the hundreds of concerts he performed each year throughout the second half of the 20th century, at first exclusively for African-American audiences and then, as of the 1960s, for all audiences in the U.S. and abroad.

King’s parents, Albert and Nora Ella Pully King, were tenant farmers who separated when he was four years old. He stayed with his mother until her death when he was nine, then worked on a plantation on his own until his father located him when he was 14 and took him back to the plantation where he had been born. He received instruction on the guitar from the brother of his stepmother and sang in a gospel group. He first moved to Memphis to work as an entertainer in 1946, returned to the plantation, then made a second, more successful trip in 1948.

King found work as a performer and disc jockey on a local radio station and made his first recordings for the Bullet label in 1949 before signing with Modern Records, which released his recordings on its RPM and later Kent subsidiaries. His single “3 O’Clock Blues”(music by Jules Taub, lyrics by B. B. King) was his first to reach the R&B charts; it hit #1 in February 1952, followed by a second chart-topper, “You Know I Love You” (music by Jules Taub, lyrics by B. B. King) in November. By the end of the year he had scored another R&B Top Ten hit with “Story from My Heart and Soul.”

King went on to hit the R&B Top Ten 15 more times through the end of 1960, his most successful records being “Please Love Me” (music by Jules Taub, lyrics by B. B. King), “You Upset Me Baby” (music by Joe Josea, lyrics by Maxwell Davis)—both of which hit #1 —and “Sweet Sixteen, Pt. 1” (music and lyrics by B. B. King and Joe Josea). During the 1950s he assembled his own touring band and spent most of the year traveling,

playing in clubs and theaters in the African-American communities of the U.S. He moved to ABC-Paramount Records in the early 1960s, though Kent continued to release and chart with a backlog of his material for another decade. Kent’s 1964 single of “Rock Me Baby” (music and lyrics by Joe Josea and B. B. King) became his first pop Top 40 hit in the spring of 1964.

King’s popularity declined in the mid-1960s, as black audiences moved from his style of R&B to the more pop Motown Sound and the nascent soul style. But by 1968 he had been taken up by the rock audience, which turned to him in the wake of the success of blues-oriented performers such as Cream, with its King-influenced guitarist Eric Clapton. Increasingly, he was able to play in rock venues, and his records began to turn up more frequently in the pop charts: in May 1968 he had a second pop Top 40 hit with “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss” (music and lyrics by B. B. King), and in October his album Lucille (the nanne he gave his guitar) became his first to make the pop LP bestseller list. Live & Well, released in the spring of 1969, spent more than seven months in the pop charts, and Completely Well, released that fall while he was serving as an opening act for The Rolling Stones, spawned the biggest pop hit of his career, “The Thrill Is Gone” (music and lyrics by Ray Hawkins and Rick Darnell), which won him his first Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance, Male.

King was nominated for the same award in 1971 for the R&B and pop chart single “Ain“t Nobody Home” (music and lyrics by Jerry Ragavoy), featured on his album B. B. King in London, on which he was backed by various British rock musicians. He continued to perform frequently and to record and release at least one chart album a year through 1983. Highlights of this period included a duet album with Bobby “Blue” Bland, Together for the First Time…Live, released in October 1974, which went gold, and several Grammy nominations and awards: he was nominated a third time for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance, Male, in 1977 for “It’s Just a Matter of Time” from the album King Size; “When I’m Wrong” (music and lyrics by B. B. King) from “Now Appearing” at Ole Miss earned a 1980 nomination for Best Rhythm & Blues Instrumental Performance; There Must Be a Better World Somewhere won him his second Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording in 1981; and he took home a third Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Recording in 1983 for Blues V Jazz.

Though not as big a record seller after the mid-1980s, King continued to be revered and to perform and record extensively. In 1985 he made a cameo appearance in the film Into the Night, and his recording of the title song (music and lyrics by Ira Newborn) gave him his biggest R&B hit in over a decade. That same year, he won his fourth Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Recording for the track “My Guitar Sings the Blues” on Six Silver Strings. His performance of “Standing on the Edge of Love” was featured on the soundtrack of the 1986 film The Color of Money and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Recording. He joined U2 for the song “When Love Comes to Town” (music by

U2, lyrics by Bono) in their concert film Rattle and Hum (1988), and the song reached the Top Ten in the U.K., earning a 1989 Grammy nomination for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. He was also nominated for Best Contemporary Blues Recording for King of the Blues: 1989.

King continued to perform and record in the 1990s, alone and in collaboration with others. He won a Grammy in 1990 for Best Traditional Blues Recording for Live at San Quentin and was nominated the same year for “Waiting on the Light to Change,” a duet with Randy Travis on Tra vis’s album Heroes and Friends. Live at the Apollo won him his sixth Grammy in the Best Traditional Blues Album category in 1991, and he won his seventh in the same category for the 1993 album Blues Summit, on which he was joined by a host of other blues performers.

Though he announced in 1996 that his advancing age and delicate health condition—he suffered from diabetes among other troubles—would necessitate his cutting his annual concert schedule from 300 or so dates a year to a mere 200, King continued to record prolifi-cally. In 1998 he released Deuces Wild, an album of duets that was nominated for the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

King was married and divorced twice, and other liaisons with women brought him a total of 15 children.


With D. Ritz, Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B. B. K. (N.Y., 1996).


Singin’ the Blues (1959); The Blues (1960); B. B. King Wails (1960); B. B. King Sings Spirituals (1960); The Great B. B. King (1961); King of the Blues (1961); My Kind of Blues (1961); More (1961); Blues for Me (1962); Twist with B. B. King (1962); Easy Listening Blues (1962); Blues in My Heart (1962); Heart Full of Blues (1962); Mr. Blues (1963); Rock Me Baby (1963); Swing Low (1963); Let Me Love You (1965); B. B. King Live on Stage (1965); Live at the Regal (1965); Confessin’ the Blues (1965); Boss of the Blues (1965); The Soul ofB. B. King (1966); Pure Soul (1966); The Original Sweet Sixteen (1966); 9 X 9.5 (1966); Turn on to B. B. King (1966); The Jungle (1967); Blues Is King (1967); R&B Soul (1967); Blues on Top of Blues (1968); Lucille (1968); The Feeling They Call the Blues (1969); The Feeling They Call the Blues, Vol. 2 (1969); From the Beginning (1969); Underground Blues (1969); Electric B. B.—His Best (1969); Live and Well (1969); Completely Well (1969); B. B. King (1969); Back in the Alley (1970); Take a Swing with Me (1970); The Incredible Soul of B. B. King (1970); Indianola Mississippi Seeds (1970); Better than Ever (1971); Doing My Thing, Lord (1971); Live at Cook County Jail (1971); In London (1971); Live (1972); L. A. Midnight (1972); Guess Who (1972); To Know You Is to Love You (1973); Friends (1974); Lucille Talks Back (1975); King of the Blues (1976); Original Folk Blues: B. B. King, 1949-1950 (1977); King Size (1977); Midnight Believer (1978); Take It Home (1979); Live “Now Appearing” at Ole Miss (1980); Rarest B. B. King (1980); There Must Be a Better World Somewhere (1981); Love Me Tender (1982); King of the Blues Guitar (instrumentais ree. 1960-61; rei. 1985); Ambassador of the Blues (1986); Blues Is King (1987); Introducing B. B. King (1987); One Nighter Blues (1987); Blues V Jazz/The Electric B. B. (1987); Six Silver Strings (1988); Doin’ My Thing, Lord (1988); Across the Tracks (1988); The King of the Blues: 1989 (1989); Lucille Had a Baby (1989); Live at San Quentin (1990); Live at the Apollo (1990); There Is Always One More Time (1991); Why I Sing the Blues (1992); The King of the Blues (1992); Blues Summit (1993); Better than Ever (1993); I Just Sing the

Blues (1993); You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now (1993); Mr. Blues (1993); B. B. King in London (1994); Catfish Blues (1995); B.B King and Friends (1995); Lucille and Friends (1995); How Blue Can You Get? (1996); Deuces Wild (1997); Paying the Cost to Be the Boss (1997); Blues on the Bayou (1998); Live in Japan (1999); Makin’ Love Is Good for You (2000); All Over Again (2000). B. B. KING AND BOBBY “BLUE” band:Together for the First Time (1974); Live (1982); Together Again (1976).


C. Sawyer, The Arrival of B. B. K: The Authorized Biography (N.Y., 1980); D. Shirley, Everyday I Sing the Blues: The Story ofB. B. K. (1995); J. Nazel, B. B. K: Jazz Musician (1996); R. Kostelanetz and A. Pope, eds., The B. B. K Companion: Five Decades of Commentary (N.Y., 1997); S. Danchin, Blues Boy: The Life and Music ofB. B. K (1998).

—William Ruhlmann