King, B. B. (1925—)

views updated

King, B. B. (1925—)

To people the world over, B. B. King is the literal personification of blues. No blues or rock 'n' roll musician in the postwar era in America could escape his influence, either directly or indirectly. His fusion of acoustic country blues with jazz set the stage for a half century of development in African American music. Although he never attained the widespread commercial success enjoyed by others, King rose to his billing "King of the Blues" without compromising his style or musicianship.

King is credited with bringing vibrato to the electric guitar, and the stinging, fluttering sound of his guitar, named Lucille, was totally unique and instantly recognizable. His story is one of the most amazing in American music. His rise from picking cotton in Mississippi to touring the world has become part of the mythology of the American Dream.

Riley B. King was born September 16, 1925, on a farm near Itta Bena, Mississippi. His parents separated when he was four, and he lived with his mother until her death when he was nine. He then lived with his maternal grandmother, his father in nearby Lexington, and on his own, supervised by an extended family of aunts, uncles, and caring white plantation owners. His earliest musical memories were the hollers of fellow field workers and his first exposure to the guitar came in church, where he heard the Reverend Archie Fair play. He listened to the records of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson on an aunt's Victrola.

"Blind Lemon and Lonnie hit me the hardest, I believe, because their voices were so distinct, natural, and believable. I heard them talking to me," King said in his autobiography, Blues All Around Me. "As guitarists, they weren't fancy. Their guitars were hooked up to their feelings, just like their voices … No one melded my musical manner like Blind Lemon and Lonnie. They entered my soul and stayed." As a teenager, King fell under the spell of T-Bone Walker, the swinging Texan who pioneered the electric guitar along with Charlie Christian. Other key influences were Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt from Belgium and saxophonists Lester Young and Louis Jordan.

King bought his first guitar for $15 when he was 12 and played it while singing tenor with the Elkhorn Jubilee Singers, a gospel group he organized with a cousin and two friends. By the mid-1940s, King moved to Memphis and sought out his cousin, Bukka White. Already a famous musician, White took King under his wing. King's signature vibrato developed as a result of his failure to master White's slide technique.

King played blues and gospel on street corners around Beale Street and landed a 10-minute show on radio station WDIA sponsored by Pepticon, a cure-all tonic. King was a hit and became a regular disc jockey known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, later shortened to B. B. His radio show led to bookings outside Memphis and the recording of his first singles in 1949 on the short-lived Bullet label.

King was soon discovered by Ike Turner, at that time working as a talent scout for Modern Records. King had a hit with "Three O'Clock Blues" which spent 15 weeks at the top of Billboard's R&B (rhythm and blues) chart in 1951, which allowed him to tour nationwide.

King stayed with Modern Records until 1962 when he left for ABC Records—signing a contract he has honored for over 35 years.Through the 1950s and 1960s, King kept up an unbelievable touring schedule, playing as many as 340 dates a year. He recorded Live at the Regal, one of the finest examples of live blues, in 1965 at Chicago's Regal Theatre. Still, King remained a star only on the "Chitlin' Circuit" of black clubs. He fell through the cracks when rock 'n' roll came around, unable to cross over like Little Richard, Fats Domino, or Bo Diddley, and did not fit in with the soul movement of the 1960s like Ray Charles or the Motown Records roster. Furthermore, he was unable to capitalize on the blues revival of the 1960s, where country blues artists like Lightnin' Hopkins and Son House were embraced by white folk music fans. Academics saw King's electric guitar and swinging horn section as a corruption of the country blues tradition.

Things changed for King in 1968 when he hired manager Sidney Seidenberg. Seidenberg booked King into white rock venues like the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and on the Tonight Show and Ed Sullivan Show on television. Seidenberg's work paid off in 1970 when King's biggest hit, "The Thrill Is Gone," reached number 15 on the Billboard pop chart. Continuing to push for mainstream bookings, Seidenberg opened up Las Vegas and booked tours of the Soviet Union and Africa.

King's fans had always been older, but he gained exposure with a much younger audience when Bono of the Irish rock group U2 wrote a duet with King, "When Love Comes to Town," in 1988. The song made the U2 concert movie Rattle and Hum and won an MTV (Music Television) Video Music Award. King also spent three months opening for U2 on the band's North American tour.

The winner of countless awards and honors, including seven Grammy Awards, King continued to play over 200 dates a year into the late 1990s. His 1993 album Blues Summit, consisting of duets with 11 other top blues performers, maintained his reputation as an American institution. That reputation was confirmed when his life was celebrated by President Bill Clinton at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995.

—Jon Klinkowitz

Further Reading:

Danchin, Sebastian. Blues Boy: The Life and Music of B. B. King. Jackson, University of Mississippi Press, 1998.

Keil, Charles. Urban Blues. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1966.

King, B.B, with David Ritz. Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B. B. King. New York, Avon Books, 1996.

Kostelanetz, Richard. The B. B. King Companion: Five Decades of Commentary. New York, Schirmer Books, 1997.

Sawyer, Charles. The Arrival of B. B. King: The Authorized Biography. New York, De Capo Press, 1980.