Blues singer and guitarist
“Riley B. King is the world’s preeminent blues guitarist,” wrote Tom Wheeler in Guitar Player.”There is hardly a rock, pop, or blues player anywhere who doesn’t owe him something.” B.B. King was born in 1925 in the area between Itta Bena and Indianola, Mississippi. When he was four his parents separated, and his mother took him to the hills near Kilmichael to be with her family. She died when King was nine. After he turned thirteen his father found him, and together they went to Lexington, Mississippi, to live. They stayed together for only a few years before King ran away back to Indianola.
Until he was inducted into the Army in 1943, King had spent his entire childhood as a laborer on farms, where he was first exposed to the blues. “I guess the earliest sound of blues that I can remember was in the fields while people would be pickin’ cotton or choppin’ or somethin’,” he told Living Blues.”When I sing and play now I can hear those same sounds that I used to hear then as a kid.”
His first musical influence, however, came through religion. A member of the Church of God In Christ, he was forbidden to play blues at home. He sang in spiritual groups like the Elkhorn Singers and Saint John’s Gospel Singers. A relative who was a guitarist and a preacher showed King his first chords on the instrument. As a teenager he began playing streetcorners for coins, combining gospel songs with the blues. When he started making more money playing in one night than he would in a week on the farm, he decided to head to Memphis. After a few years, King went back to Indianola to work and repay some debts, eventually returning to Memphis to stay.
He moved in with his cousin Booker (Bukka) White, the famous slide guitarist. In an attempt to duplicate the stinging sound of the steel slide, King developed the trilling vibrato which has since become his trademark. With the help of the late Sonny Boy Williamson he began singing radio commercials on station WDIA, which led to a three-and-a-half year stint as a disc jockey. He was known as “the blues boy from Beale Street,” later shortened to B.B. The records he spun on his show would come to have a great impact on his own playing. Artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Roy Brown, Louis Jordan, Nat Cole, Django Reinhardt, and especially T-Bone Walker, were absorbed, interpreted and presented in the polished sound now known as the “B.B. King style of blues”.
“Technically, harmoncially, conceptually far in advance of his postwar contemporaries, B.B. King developed the single most satisfying, popular and influential of all modern blues approaches,” wrote Guitar World’s Pete Welding. Many critics have cited King’s wide range of
Full name, Riley B. King; born September 16, 1925, near Indianola, Miss. ; son of Albert and Nora Ella (Pully) King; married twice; children: eight.
As a child, worked as a farmhand, began singing in spiritual groups, and learned to play guitar; as a teenager, played for money on streetcorners; sang on radio commercials; disc jockey, 1949-53; began recording while working as a disc jockey; played in small clubs from the mid-1950s until the mid-1960s; began playing larger venues in the mid-1960s; has toured extensively throughout the United States and around the world, appearing in concerts, at blues festivals, on television, and in films. Co-founder of Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation (FAIRR); has made more than 40 concert appearances at San Quentin prison. Columist for Guitar Player magazine, 1983. Military service: U.S. Army, 1943.
Awards: Golden Mike Award, National Association of Television and Radio Artists, 1969 and 1974; Academie du Jazz award (France), 1969; Grammy Award for best rhythm & blues vocal, male, 1970, for “The Thrill Is Gone”; a “Day of Blues” was established in his honor by the city of Memphis, Tenn., 1971; presented with key to city of Cleveland, Ohio, 1971; “B.B. King Day” was established by the governor of Mississippi, 1972; honorary doctorate from Tongaloo College, 1973; Humanitarian Award, B’nai B’rith Music and Performance Lodge of New York, 1973; NAACP Image Award, 1975; “B.B. King Day” was established in city of Berkeley, Calif., 1976; honorary doctor of music, Yale University, 1977, and Berkley College of Music, 1985; Grammy Award for best traditional blues recording, 1986, for “My Guitar Sings the Blues”; Lifetime Achievement Award, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1987; has received awards from numerous magazine reader polls.
Addresses: Office –c/o MCA Records, 100 University City Plaza, North Hollywood, CA 91608.
influences, from jazz to gospel to country blues, as the main reason for his widespread popularity.
While at WDIA King recorded four sides for the Bullet record company. He was starting to gather a small following, but it wasn’t until the 1951 release of “Three O’Clock Blues” that things started to really happen. The single was a number one hit, staying on the charts for over four months. Like many of King’s hits, he did not write it. It was penned by Lowell Fulson, as was “Everyday I Have the Blues,” another hit for King. In fact, many of the songs that have become synonymous with King were non-originals, but all contained his stylistic stamp: “How Blue Can You Get” by Louis Jordan, “Rock Me Mama” by Arthur Crudup and Lil Son Jackson, “Sweet Little Angel” by Tampa Red, and “Sweet Sixteen” by Big Joe Turner.
King recorded for the Bihari brothers’ Modern label (and its subsidiaries—RPM, Kent, and Crown) from 1950 to 1961 and settled finally with ABC (MCA). In 1964 he released the blues benchmark album “Live at the Regal.” In Guitar Player Dan Forte called it The classic album of urban blues…. The master works the throng into a frenzy, like an evangelist at a tent revival.”
Until 1965, King played the chitlin’ circuit almost endlessly, averaging well over 300 nights per year. His early popularity had died down, but the blues revival of the sixties gave his career a second wind. Musicians like Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield praised King’s guitarmanship and influence and acknowledged their debt to him. White audiences rediscovered the “King of the Blues” as he started performing in larger concert halls and Las Vegas clubs. In 1969 he scored his first and only Top 20 pop hit with “The Thrill is Gone.”
King has continued touring and recording albums (over 50 to date). His late seventies efforts, produced by the Crusaders, may have disappointed traditional blues fans but showed that he was still trying to expand his audience. The early eighties saw him scoring music for the film “Into the Night.” Throughout his quest to sanctify the blues, B.B. King has fought sterotypes and forged new musical styles, all the while remaining true to his roots.
In a Rolling Stone interview King stated: “I was almost afraid to say that I was a blues singer. Because it looked like people kind of looked down on you a lot of times when you mention the word blues. But I thank God today I can stick out my chest and say, yeah, I’m a blues singer!”
Anthology of the Blues, Kent.
Better Than Ever, Kent.
Boss of the Blues, Kent.
Doing My Thing, Lord, Kent.
From the Beginning, Kent.
Incredible Soul of B.B. King, Kent.
The Jungle, Kent.
Greatest Hits of B.B. King, Kent.
Let Me Love You, Kent.
Live, B.B. King on Stage, Kent.
Original “Sweet Sixteen,” Kent.
Pure Soul, Kent.
Rock & Roll Festival, Vol. 1, Kent.
Turn On With B.B. King, Kent.
Super Rhythm & Blues Hits, Kent.
Underground Blues, Kent.
Live at the Regal, MCA, 1965.
Electric B.B. King, MCA, 1969.
Completely Well, MCA, 1970.
Indianola Mississippi Seeds, ABC, 1970.
Live and Well, MCA, 1970.
Live in Cook County Jail, MCA, 1971.
Back in the Alley, MCA, 1973.
Best of B.B. King, MCA.
Guitar Player, MCA.
Love Me Tender, MCA, 1982.
Take It Home, MCA.
Rhythm & Blues Christmas, United Artists.
Midnight Believer, MCA, 1984.
Dalton, David, and Lenny Kaye, Rock 100, Grosset & Dunlap, 1977.
Evans, Tom, and Mary Anne Evans, Guitars from Renaissance to Rock, Facts on File, 1982.
Guralnick, Peter, The Listener’s Guide to the Blues, Facts on File, 1982.
Miller, Jim, editor, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Random House, 1976, revised edition, 1980.
The Rolling Stone Interviews, St. Martin’s, 1981.
down beat, October, 1987.
Guitar Player, September, 1980; November, 1982; February, 1983; March, 1983; May, 1984; August, 1984; August 1985; May, 1986; September, 1986; January, 1987; December, 1987.
Guitar World, September, 1988.
Living Blues, May-June, 1988.
—Calen D. Stone
In the late 1940s Riley B. King worked his way from the cotton fields of Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was dubbed B.B. (short for Blues Boy) and earned a reputation as a first class blues man. For more than 50 years the name B.B. King would remain synonymous with blues music everywhere. King started his career on Memphis’s Beale Street and became a blues legend. He became known as the King of the Blues, a rank of music royalty he would share with another Memphis legend, Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll. There are, in fact, ten-foot high bronze statues of both Kings—B.B. and Elvis—on Beale Street. King, with the help of his guitar “Lucille,” developed a singular musical style. Without the fullness of chords, King combined just the right combination of guitar picking, string stretching, and powerful singing to emote his blues message. King’s art stems from the powerful sentiment of his life and times, which he renders through his music.
King was born on September 16, 1925, in the Mississippi Delta area—a place which he called in his autobiography as “the most Southern place on earth.” By some reports King was born in Indianola, Mississippi, and by others he was born in Itta Bena. The truth, according to King, isthathewas born between In dianola and Greenwood, near Itta Bena, “[O]n the bank of Blue Lake.” King, was named Riley by his father, Albert Lee King, in memory of a deceased brother. Although B.B. King had a younger brother, the sibling died in infancy, and King was raised as an only child. King’s mother, Nora Ella, left his father when King was very young, and the two moved in with her family. While there, King was raised by three generations of kin: his great grandfather and great grandmother who were former slaves, his grandmother, and his mother. The family lived as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation. King learned as a youngster that music was a trademark of his ancestors and not simply a way to pass the hours of backbreaking cotton picking. On a southern plantation, music was an exclusive means of communication between the African American community, a language not totally understood by the white society.
King worked on the plantation from early boyhood. At age six he milked cows every morning and every night, and he attended the nearby one-room Elkhorn Schoolhouse in between chores. King’s mother died when he was ten years old, and his grandmother died shortly thereafter, leaving King to fend for himself. He elected to live in solitude in the cabin he once shared with his mother, working for a tenant farmer. After five years on his own, King moved back to Indianola to live with his father and stepmother Aida Lee. While at his father’s home King attended Ambrose Vocational High School, but he soon returned to the Mississippi Delta, to a cotton plantation where he lived with his aunt, uncle, and his cousin, fellow blues singer Bukka White. It was here that King’s uncle introduced him to the guitar.
At age 14 King fell in love with a neighbor girl named Angel. The relationship ended tragically when Angel along with her entire family were killed in a terrible accident. Emotionally isolated once again, King, who bought his first guitar at age 12 only to have it stolen, bought another guitar and joined the Famous St. John Gospel Singers. He played music constantly as a means of expression, perhaps because of a speech impediment. Surprisingly, King found he could sing easily without stuttering.
The Indianola city life eventually beckoned King, and he laid claim to a street corner where he played his guitar and sang songs for the passers-by. Initially he sang gospel music, but he came to the realization that the simple modification of lyrics from “Lord” to “baby” transformed gospel songs into blues fare. He learned quickly that people on the street paid to hear blues songs, not gospel music.
In 1943—during World War II—the 18 year old King enlisted in the army. He was released after basic training because he drove a tractor, an essential civilian skill during wartime. When King grew increasingly
Born Riley B. King September 16, 1925, in Itta Bena, MS; son of Albert Lee and Nora Ella King; married Martha Lee, (divorced); married Sue Hall, June of 1958 (divorced 1966).
Started as a street musician in Memphis, TN; nicknamed “Blues Boy,” and later, B.B., 1947-50; disc jockey for WDIA in Memphis, 1948-50; signed with ABC Records, 1961; released B.B. King Live at the Regal, 1965 Confessin’ the Blues, 1966; other releases include, Blues on top of Blues, Bluesway, 1968; Completely Well (includes “The Thrill Is Gone”), Bluesway, 1969;B.B. King Live at the Appol-lo, GRP, 1991;There’s Always One More Time, MCA, 1991;B. B. King—King of the Blues, MCA, 1992; (with others) Blues Summit, MCA, 1993; first overseas tour, 1972.
Awards: Jazz & Pop, Best Male Jazz Singer of the Year, 1968; French Academie du Jazz Award, Best Album of the Year (Lucille) 1969; Grammy Awards, 1970, 1981, 1983, 1987 (Lifetime Achievement), 1990-91, 1993; Ebony Blues Hall of Fame, 1974; NAACP Image Award, 1975, 1981, 1993; Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, 1980; W. C. Handy Award, 1983, 1985, 1987-88, 1991; Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee, 1987; MTV Video Music Award, Best Video from a Film, 1988/89; Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1990; Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1991;Ebony awards, Best Male Blues Singer, Best Blues Instrumentalist, Best Blues Album, 1974-75; honorary doctorates: Tougaloo College, L.H.D., 1973; Yale University, Music, 1977; Berklee College of Music, 1982; Rhodes College, Fine Arts, 1990.
Addresses: Management —Sidney A. Seidenberg, 1414 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.
frustrated with the tiresome life in Mississippi, he hitched a ride on a grocery truck to Memphis in 1947. Just 20 years old, he was awed and inspired by the big city. He left Memphis after a few months, but vowed to return one day as a blues singer after settling his accounts in Indianola.
King returned to Memphis, and good fortune, in 1948. Almost immediately upon his arrival he found work singing on commercials at the African American radio station WDIA, where he would later become a disc jockey. His nights were spent performing at local clubs with his band, which included Solomon Hardy, Earl Forrest, Ford Nelson, and Johnny “Ace” Alexander. King’s free time was spent on Beale Street. Industrious and healthy, he often picked cotton between radio shows and gigs. He made a recording for Bullet Records, and in time he was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, soon shortened to Blues Boy, then simply B.B.
King eventually purchased a Gibson electric guitar and an amplifier. He dubbed the guitar Lucille after a fateful performance at a dance in a Twist, Arkansas, barn in December of 1949. A fight broke out between two men over a woman named Lucille, during which a kerosene stove was knocked over, setting the barn aflame. King escaped the fire, but leaving his guitar behind, he risked his life entering the burning structure to salvage the instrument. Ever afterward he would call his guitars Lucille. While the original Lucille was stolen soon after the fire, King has played at least 17 Lucilles during the decades of his career. The guitar has become so synonymous with King that Gibson manufactured a Lucille model in his honor.
By now an up and coming blues man, King spent the early 1950s on the road. He played wherever blues fans gathered—clubs, roadhouses, and barns—sometimes sleeping in his car, in the hopes of building a reputation. In 1951, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips produced King’s first single, “3 O’Clock Blues,” which held the number one position on the Billboard R&B chart for several weeks. By 1952, his reputation had grown to the point where he was now performing at an elite circuit of clubs, including the Apollo Theater in Harlem. A few years later King teamed up with the successful producer and musical arranger Maxwell Davis, assembled a band, and purchased a bus called “Big Red.” As the 1950s came to a close, however, blues music slowly lost its appeal with large audiences. The popular music of the times evolved from the simple southern music style proliferated by King, into a lively rock and roll beat with catchy lyrics. King’s popularity waned, his style of music now characterized as “urban blues.”
In 1961, King inked a recording contract with ABC Records. He released three albums for ABC, Mr. Blues in 1963, B.B. King Live at the Regal in 1965, and Confessili the Blues in 1966, before company executives moved him to their Bluesway label. In 1969, King seemed to truly come into his own with the breakthrough album Completely Well. That album featured the single “The Thrill Is Gone”, which would prove to be one of his biggest hits and launched King into the collective American musical conscience. Later that year, King released the successful Live and Well, which Downbeats James Powell called, “the most important blues recording in a long time.”
King’s career continued unabated during the 1970s as he managed to gain favor among young people and other musicians. Guitar Player magazine called him the world’s best blues guitarist in 1970. He became a perennial entertainer on college campuses and emerged as an icon for many young musicians of that era, even touring for ten days with the Rolling Stones. King’s influence on the blues and rock guitarists who followed him is inestimable. From the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards to blues man Albert King, who only halfjokingly claimed to be King’s half-brother, his staccato picking style, bent notes, and numerous riffs have been borrowed copiously.
As for his own influences, King lists jazz legends Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, as well as blues men T-Bone Walker and Lonnie Johnson. His musical tastes, in fact, were even more varied. “I was crazy about the Hawaiian guitar, and I’m equally crazy about the country lap steel guitar,” King told Musician in 1998. “And all those other guys who could use the bottleneck [slide], I loved that sound.” Despite the wide diversity of musical influences, or perhaps because of it, King forged a sound and style that was unique.
King married for the first time at age 17, to Martha Lee of Europe, Mississippi. The marriage dissolved eight years later, from the strain of constant separation caused by King’s musical career. He married Sue Hall in Detroit in 1958 at a wedding presided over by Reverend C. L. Franklin (father of singer Aretha Franklin). In 1966, that marriage also ended in divorce, for similar reasons. King sired no children from either marriage, yet in 1949, he fathered a son out of wed lock— the first of 15 children tha the would father by 15 different women.
King’s popularity and legendary status continued to grow with each passing year. His 70th Birthday Bashon October 27, 1995, at the Orpheum Theater was orchestrated as a benefit for children with sickle cell anemia. The four-hour celebration featured an array of popular entertainers and attracted a sellout audience. Such an extravagant affair might have seemed strange for the humble blues king, or maybe not. As he told Time in 1969, “Blues is what I do best. If Frank Sinatra can be tops in his field, Nat Cole in his, Bach and Beethoven in theirs, why can’t I be great, and known for it, in blues?”
B.B. King Live at the Regal, ABC, 1965.
Confessili’ the Blues, ABC, 1966.
Blues on Top of Blues, Bluesway, 1968.
Completely Well, Bluesway, 1969.
B.B. King Live at the Apollo, GRP, 1991.
There Is Always One More Time, MCA, 1991.
B.B. King—King of the Blues, MCA, 1992.
(With others) Blues Summit, MCA, 1993.
The Best of B.B. King, Vol. 1, Virgin.
King of the Blues, MCA.
King, B. B., with David Ritz, Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B. B. King, Avon Books, New York, 1996.
Santelli, Robert, The Big Book of Blues: a Biographical Encyclopedia, Penguin Books, New York, 1993.
Business Wire, November 17, 1997.
Downbeat, Aug 7, 1969.
Star Tribune, 20 August 1996.
Time, Jan 10, 1969.
Tri-State Defender, 25 October, 1995; 8 November 1995.
MCA Records—“B.B. KING”, htt://www.mca.com/mca_rcords/library/copy/bbking.copy.html.
B. B. King
B. B. King
B. B. King (born 1925) is one of the most successful artists in the history of the blues. Today his ability as a blues guitarist is remains unparalleled.
"B. B. King is widely recognized as the greatest living blues guitarist," Dimitri Ehrlich of Interview asserted. "This title derives not only from his mastery of the guitar but from the generosity of spirit he brings to the blues." Musician magazine named King "the common man's blues titan since the '50s" as well as one of the top 100 guitarists of all time. Such praise is not uncommon for King; his biting lead guitar, passionate vocals, and genteel presence have epitomized the blues for many listeners since his arrival on the music scene more than four decades ago. In addition, he has helped to popularize the blues with rock audiences, playing over the years with such rock artists as Jimi Hendrix and U2. Blues-rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton have also cited him as a crucial influence. "His is the hardest music to fake because—at its core—it's pure feeling," wrote Colin Escott in the liner notes for King's 1992 four-CD boxed set, B. B. King: King of the Blues.
King arose from humble circumstances but has remained philosophical about his success. "I felt that this was what I wanted to do, to make a living playing the guitar," he recollected in an interview for Ebony magazine. "My father was born on the plantation, I was born on the plantation. I wanted more for my children. This—the guitar—was my way out."
The plantation in question was located between Itta Bena and Indianola, Mississippi, where Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925. His parents split up when he was a small child, and though he lived for a few years with his mother in the Mississippi hills, he found himself alone at age nine after she died. His father retrieved him from a tenant farm a few years after that. Working as a farmhand on a cotton plantation in Indianola, he earned $22.50 a week. "I guess the earliest sound of blues that I can remember was in the fields while people would be pickin' cotton or choppin' or somethin'," King noted in a 1988 Living Blues interview cited in Contemporary Musicians. "When I sing and play now I can hear those same sounds that I used to hear then as a kid."
Early on, King was forbidden to sing the blues; among deeply religious southern black communities in the 1930s and 1940s, it was largely thought of as "the Devil's Music." He obediently sang gospel music in church and even performed professionally with groups like the Famous St. John Gospel Singers. "I didn't want to disrespect my [father and stepmother], so I never played blues around the house," King explained to Interview, "but I knew then, same as I know today, that I wasn't doing anything wrong. I think that before they died they both felt very proud of me."
Ironically, it was the sound of a "sanctified preacher" playing the guitar—as he informed Ebony's Lynn Norment—that first aroused the interest that would make King an exponent of the infernal blues. Recordings by early blues masters like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and King's favorite, Sonny Boy Williamson, were often playing on his Aunt Jemima's Victrola. King's farm boss agreed to loan him $30 to buy a guitar from the Sears and Roebuck catalog and sign up for music lessons. "My Darling Clementine" was the first song he learned on the instrument, but the budding musician quickly developed an impressive blues technique. It wasn't long before he was earning more singing and playing guitar Saturdays on Indianola street corners than he could make all week on the plantation. "I would play whatever somebody would ask me to," King noted in an interview with Escott and Andy McKaie for the boxed set booklet. "They'd ask me to play a gospel song, which I'd be glad to, and they would compliment me highly. People would ask me to play and sing the blues, and they'd give me a tip, sometimes even a beer."
Discussing his youth in Interview, King was at pains to dispel the myth that Indianola was a rural nowheresville. "You didn't have to go to bed with the chickens in the evening," he insisted. "Usually, when the sun went down, you could go to one of the cafés or clubs [in town], which was something I was crazy about."
The elegant attire sported by patrons of clubs like Johnny Jones' Nightspot presented a beguiling contrast to King's work-stained overalls. But it was the racial violence of the Mississippi region, not the economic divergence, that eventually drove him away: "I saw lynchings, seen people hanging, seen people drug through the streets," he told Ed Bradley on the television program Street Stories. "Blues music actually did start because of pain, and especially the black people in the South that started to singing." Besides, the lure of another place became stronger and stronger. A city called Memphis—and in particular the club-strewn Beale Street—promised the excitement and musical atmosphere of which he dreamed. He visited there for the first time in 1946, but didn't decide to stay until two years later.
"Beale Street Blues Boy"
King served briefly in the U.S. Army but soon made his way to Memphis with his guitar, moving in with his cousin Booker (Bukka) White, himself a blues artist. King's attempts to emulate Bukka's slide guitar technique helped him develop what Musician called his "trademark," namely "a first-finger vibrato that shakes at the wrist and punctuates the blues as recognizably as very few other sounds." He sought out Sonny Boy Williamson, who had a radio show on WDIA in West Memphis, and asked to play a song for him. Williamson was sufficiently impressed with King's rendition of " Blues at Sunrise" to offer him his own radio show and a spot in the line-up at Miss Annie's 16th Street Grill. "Twelve dollars a night," he exclaimed to Bradley. "I'd never heard of that much money in the world before."
King had landed a regular performing spot on the club circuit. As a disc jockey, he was able to advertise his own gigs on radio, and soon he and his trio had amassed a following. "Memphis and Beale Street were for me the college of hard knocks, the college of learning," he recollected in the Ebony interview with Norment. "This is where I got my formal training." Known on the radio as the "Beale Street Blues Boy," which was shortened to "Bee-Bee," and then to his famous initials, King actually went on the road briefly to promote a tonic called Pep-Ti-Kon, for which he had written a jingle. Almost immediately, though, he wanted to make records.
After he had badgered the WDIA staff long enough, he was signed to Bullet Records and in 1949 recorded four sides at the radio station, including "Miss Martha King" and "I've Got the Blues." He performed in the area, as he recalled to Escott and McKaie, going "any place where I could get back to Memphis the next day by 8 o'clock." Musician and talent scout Ike Turner connected King with the Bihari brothers of the Kent/Modern/RPM group, and his 1951 single for his new label, "Three O'Clock Blues," became a Number One hit. He scored several other hits during these years, and by the mid-1950s was playing about 300 shows a year; he would maintain this schedule for over two decades.
Most of King's fans know that his Gibson guitar is named "Lucille." Several of the special hollow-bodied electric instruments have inherited the name, and King noted in Ebony on Lucille's 40th anniversary how it all came about. He was playing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas, when two men got into a fight and knocked over a heater, starting a fire that spread through the dancehall. King escaped the burning building, then remembered his $60 guitar and ran back in, nearly perishing in an attempt to rescue it. When he discovered that the belligerents who had started the blaze were quarreling over a woman named Lucille, he gave the name to his guitar—"to remind myself never to do anything that foolish."
Appreciated by Rock Audiences
At first King distanced himself from the new musical style—rock 'n' roll—that emerged in the latter half of the 1950s. Gradually, however, he began incorporating some of the stylistic traits of influential early rockers like Little Richard and Fats Domino. In 1962 he moved to the large ABC label (which was later absorbed by MCA), and, after releasing a number of singles, put out his first album, 1965's Live at the Regal. In 1968, after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., he played an all-night blues benefit with rock innovator Jimi Hendrix and fellow blues guitarist Buddy Guy to raise money for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
During the late 1960s, English rock's absorption of the blues—showcased in the work of British guitar heroes like Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and others—rekindled interest in the blues among mainstream U.S. audiences. King found himself playing rock festivals with the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Jefferson Airplane, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Santana, and ill-fated singer Janis Joplin, with whom he had developed a close friendship. As black audiences moved away from the blues, King courted young white listeners. Asked by Clarence Waldron of Jet if he felt African Americans had abandoned the music to whites, he replied: "Anything that we stop supporting and others start, I don't know if you call it giving it away or we just leave it out there and let somebody else have it."
In 1969, "The Thrill Is Gone" was released; the blues-with-strings number fetched a 1971 Grammy and became King's biggest hit and a concert standard thenceforth. "If I didn't sing that song," he quipped to Ebony, "they would throw tomatoes at me."
Throughout the late '60s and the early '70s, King also recorded with supportive rock musicians like Carole King, Joe Walsh, and Leon Russell; the latter wrote the soulful single "Hummingbird." During this time, King maintained his punishing performance schedule and released albums like B. B. King in London, featuring former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr. In 1971, with attorney F. Lee Bailey, King founded FAIRR (Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation), an organization dedicated to the improvement of prison conditions. This work corresponded with regular prison performances; his Live at San Quentin is considered a classic representation of such shows.
King was faced with a heartbreaking variation on a theme in 1992 when he played at a Gainesville, Florida, correctional facility; among the inmates there was his daughter Patty, who was serving time for a drug violation. "I've got 15 children scattered about," King told Bradley. "I love my family. I love my children. And I wished I could have been a better father than I have been in some ways." As he commented in Ebony, "Due to my job, I just was never there in person. In spirit, yes, and financially, yes. I've been told by my children that just being there in person would have been better." King has been married and divorced twice, though he suggested to Ebony and Jet in the early 1990s that he might consider marrying again; he told the latter publication, "The happiest times of my life were when I was married."
A Blues Institution
By the 1980s King was formally recognized as a blues institution. He won the a 1984 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Recording for Blues 'n' Jazz; he appeared on the album Rattle and Hum with the Irish rock band U2—the video for the song on which he performed took an MTV award—and worked in the studio with members of the cutting-edge rock band Living Colour; he also received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1988 Grammy festivities and another at the Songwriters Hall of Fame dinner two years later. Along with the former honor came profound praise: King was hailed as "one of the most original and soulful of all blues guitarists and singers, whose compelling style and devotion to musical truth have inspired so many budding performers, both here and abroad, to celebrate the blues."
In the early 1990s, King was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George Bush, and was granted a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts; he even earned a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. Live at San Quentin, released in 1990, twenty years after it was recorded, earned him another Grammy. And Beale Street by now featured a popular establishment called B. B. King's Blues Club and Restaurant.
MCA released B. B. King: King of the Blues, a four-CD boxed set, in 1992, and King participated in the ambitious B. B. King's Blues Summit recording, a live-in-the-studio celebration laid down in Memphis and Berkeley, California, that paired him with such legends as John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Etta James, Robert Cray, and Lowell Fulson, who had written "Three O'Clock Blues." Andy McKaie, who organized and co-produced the project, noted in the CD's booklet that the invited guests unanimously replied: "If B. B. wants me, tell me when and where!" McKaie added: "The King of Blues himself, possibly the most gracious man in all music, then treated each guest like royalty."
By the time he reached his late sixties, King had scaled back his performance schedule somewhat—he was briefly hospitalized due to diabetes in 1990—though he still toured regularly. In the spring of 1994, he brought the blues to Red China, playing an invitation-only concert at the Beijing Hard Rock Cafe. Although he had come a very long way from the plantation and the segregated hothouse of the early blues scene, he told Bradley on Street Stories that onstage, little had changed over the years. "I've forgotten what I look like. In fact, I don't even exist. It's just the guitar and myself in that setting." He was by now on Lucille the Fifteenth. "We've spent 40 years together," he noted to Ebony." She likes younger men but puts up with me."
King was on hand to celebrate the 1994 opening of "B.B. King's Blues Club," a new, three-level location on Universal Studios' glitzy City Walk, according to Down Beat. King started the original club on Beale Street in Memphis in 1991. Earlier in 1994, King opened one of his clubs on Sunset Strip.
In December of 1995, a 70-year old King was named a recipient of the 18th annual Kennedy Center Honors along with Neil Simon, Sidney Poitier, Marilyn Horne, and Jacques d'Amboise. King said of the event, "Meeting the President of the United States is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. … Anytime the most powerful man in the world takes 10 to 15 minutes to sit and talk with me, an old guy from Indianola, Mississippi, that's a memory imprinted in my head which forever will be there. To go be honored, to have people playing for you, for the things you may or may have not done in your lifetime, that's the greatest honor to be paid to me."
Contemporary Musicians, volume 1, edited by Michael L. LaBlanc, Gale, 1989.
Rock Movers and Shakers, edited by Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton, Billboard Books, 1991.
Billboard, August 24, 1991, p. 38.
Ebony, November 1969, p. 55; February 1992, pp. 36-50.
Interview, March 1991, p. 22.
Jet, November 11, 1991, pp. 36-39.
Musician, February 1993, p. 52.
New York Times Magazine, October 27, 1968, p. 36.
Additional information for this profile was taken from a transcript from the television program Street Stories, first broadcast on August 6, 1993, and from materials accompanying the recordings B. B. King: King of the Blues, 1992, and B. B. King's Blues Summit, 1993. □
King, B. B.
B. B. King
Born: September 16, 1925
Itta Bena, Mississippi
African American singer, musician, and songwriter
B. B. King is one of the most successful artists in the history of blues music. Today his ability as a blues guitarist remains unmatched.
Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925, between Itta Bena and Indianola, Mississippi. His parents split up when he was a small child, and he lived for a few years with his mother in the Mississippi hills. She died when he was nine, and he was alone until his father, Albert King, found him a few years later. Working on a cotton plantation in Indianola, he earned $22.50 a week. "I guess the earliest sound of blues that I can remember was in the fields while people would be pickin' cotton or choppin' or somethin'." King noted in a 1988 Living Blues interview cited in Contemporary Musicians. "When I sing and play now I can hear those same sounds that I used to hear then as a kid."
King sang gospel music in church and even performed professionally with the Famous St. John Gospel Singers, but he was not allowed to sing the blues, which was considered "the devil's music." Still, he listened to recordings by early blues masters, especially Sonny Boy Williamson, on his aunt's record player. King's farm boss loaned him money to buy a guitar and sign up for music lessons, and King quickly developed as a blues player. Soon he was earning more singing and playing guitar on street corners on Saturday than he made all week on the plantation. King left Mississippi for Memphis, Tennessee, which promised the excitement and musical atmosphere he dreamed of. He settled there for good in 1948.
"Beale Street Blues Boy"
After serving briefly in the army, King moved in with his cousin Booker (Bukka) White, also a blues guitarist. King's attempts to copy Bukka's playing helped him develop his own style. He sought out Sonny Boy Williamson, who had a radio show on WDIA in West Memphis, and asked to play a song for him. Williamson was so impressed with King that he offered King his own radio show and a chance to play regularly at Miss Annie's 16th Street Grill. King was able to advertise his upcoming concerts on the radio, and soon he and his trio had become popular. Known on the radio as the "Beale Street Blues Boy," which was shortened to "Bee-Bee," and then to his famous initials, King decided he wanted to make records.
King was signed to Bullet Records and in 1949 recorded four songs at the radio station, including "Miss Martha King" and "I've Got the Blues." He also continued to perform in the area. Musician and talent scout Ike Turner (1931–) connected King with the Kent/Modern /RPM record label, and King's King's 1951 single for his new label, "Three O'Clock Blues," became a hit. He scored several other hits during these years, and by the mid-1950s he was playing about three hundred shows a year. He would maintain this schedule for over twenty years.
Once when King was playing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas, two men got into a fight and knocked over a heater, starting a fire that spread through the dancehall. King escaped the burning building, then remembered his sixty-dollar guitar and ran back in, nearly dying in an attempt to rescue it. When he discovered that the men who had started the blaze were fighting over a woman named Lucille, he gave the name to his guitar—"to remind myself never to do anything that foolish."
Appreciated by rock audiences
Although King distanced himself from rock and roll when the new style emerged in the 1950s, he soon began to add some of the traits of early rockers like Little Richard (1932–) and Fats Domino (1928–) to his act. In 1962 he moved to the ABC label, and in 1965 he put out his first album, Live at the Regal. In 1968, after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), King played an all-night blues benefit with fellow guitarists Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970) and Buddy Guy (1936–) to raise money for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
During the late 1960s, praise for King from English rock musicians such as Eric Clapton (1945–) and Jimmy Page (1944–) led to renewed interest in the blues among U.S. audiences. King found himself playing concerts with bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Santana. As African American audiences moved away from the blues, King began to attract young white listeners. In 1969 "The Thrill Is Gone" was released; the song won a Grammy in 1971 and became King's biggest hit. In 1971, with attorney F. Lee Bailey (1933–), King founded FAIRR (the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation), an organization dedicated to the improvement of prison conditions. King often gave concerts in prisons, one of which was recorded and released as Live at San Quentin.
A blues legend
By the 1980s King was recognized as a blues legend. He won a 1984 Grammy for best traditional blues recording for Blues n' Jazz; he appeared on the album Rattle and Hum with the Irish rock band U2; and he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1988 Grammy awards ceremony. In the early 1990s King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George Bush (1924–), and even earned a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. Live at San Quentin, released in 1990, earned him another Grammy. He was also the owner of B. B. King's Blues Club and Restaurant on Beale Street in Memphis.
King has been married and divorced twice. He has fifteen children and has often expressed regret that his heavy touring schedule prevented him from being around to see them grow up. He was faced with a heartbreaking situation in 1992 when he played at a jail in Gainesville, Florida; among the inmates there was his daughter Patty, who was serving time on drug charges. By the time he reached his late sixties, King had slowed down his performance schedule somewhat, though he still toured regularly. In 1994 he played a concert at the Hard Rock Café in Beijing, China. He was by now playing Lucille the Fifteenth. "We've spent 40 years together," he said to Ebony. "She likes younger men but puts up with me."
In December 1995 King received the 18th annual Kennedy Center Honors presented by President Bill Clinton (1946–). King said of the event, "Anytime the most powerful man in the world takes 10 to 15 minutes to sit and talk with me, an old guy from Indianola, Mississippi, that's a memory imprinted in my head which forever will be there." In 2000 King was elected to the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame. The same year he received a Heroes Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. In February 2001 he won another Grammy in the traditional blues album category for Riding with the King, which he recorded with Eric Clapton.
For More Information
Danchin, Sebastian. Blues Boy: The Life and Music of B. B. King. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, eds. Rock Movers and Shakers. New York: Billboard Books, 1991.
Born: Riley King; Indianola, Mississippi, 16 September 1925
Best-selling album since 1990: Blues Summit (1993)
Known worldwide as the undisputed "King of the Blues," B.B. King ranks as one of the most important figures in popular music. His inventive yet straightforward guitar playing, which fuses jazz and gospel elements with blues, has influenced not only younger blues performers but also rock artists such as Eric Clapton and the late Jimi Hendrix. In addition, he is a tough, bellowing vocalist who delves into the emotional core of his songs. Beyond King's flexible, conversational guitar style and powerful singing, his great contribution lies in bringing blues music to a mainstream audience. Performing live between two hundred and three hundred nights per year, recording albums well into his seventies, King is a formidable presence whose work has become part of the American cultural fabric.
Roots and Blues Stardom
Raised in the Mississippi Delta, an area of northern Mississippi rich in blues history, King worked the land as a sharecropper from an early age, living alternately with his mother, grandmother, and father. In 1946 he traveled to nearby Memphis, Tennessee, to seek out his cousin, Bukka White, a well-known practitioner of blues music. King studied with his cousin for ten months, gaining invaluable instruction in guitar playing. By 1949 King had become a popular disc jockey on Memphis radio station WDIA, the first station in the country to adopt an all-black programming format. It was at WDIA that King came up with his distinctive initials, short for "Blues Boy." In 1951 he recorded his first national hit, "Three O' Clock Blues," in Memphis for the Los Angeles–based RPM label. King remained with RPM, later known as Kent, until moving to the larger ABC label in 1962. At ABC he released a number of fine albums, including the classic Live at the Regal (1965), the first recording to capture the energy and charisma of King's live shows. In 1969 his version of the blues song, "The Thrill Is Gone," became a pop and R&B hit on the strength of a haunting string arrangement and his searing vocals. The success of the single brought King a new degree of prominence in nightclubs, on television, and on college campuses. During this period, many up-and-coming rock musicians were influenced by King's trademark guitar style, which features a distinctive tremolo, or trilling sound. Rock performers of the 1970s also borrowed his technique of playing extended guitar solos without vocal accompaniment, a practice stemming from King's inability to play and sing at the same time.
A Nontraditional Career
By the 1990s King was regarded as the nation's leading ambassador of the blues, given the kind of reverence shown to jazz legend Louis Armstrong decades earlier. At an age when many performers retire, King pushed himself even further, recording the acclaimed Blues Summit album in 1993. The album, in which King duets with well-known blues artists such as Robert Cray and Etta James, creates an infectious party atmosphere with the enthusiasm of respected colleagues working together. The collaboration with Cray, "Playing with My Friends," is a highlight, with King and his younger disciple trading vocals and dexterous guitar licks in a spirit of mutual admiration. Blues Summit won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album in 1993, with jazz magazine Down Beat calling it "just plain, raw, sweaty, down-home blues with a sense of humor and a lot of spontaneous interaction in the studio, the way records ought to be made."
As the 1990s progressed King continued to record challenging, rewarding albums. Nowhere is his vitality better displayed than on Blues on the Bayou (1998). Recorded with his touring band in a small Louisiana studio, the album features a rich, full sound that captures the exuberant spirit of his live shows. On his composition, "Blues Man," he begins with simplicity and directness, singing "I'm a blues man, but I'm a good man—understand," pouring into the short line a lifetime of sadness and resignation. As the song progresses he slowly builds to a burning rage, shouting, "I would be all right, people, just give me a break." The track displays one of King's greatest strengths as a singer: finding the peak emotional moments in a song and emphasizing them with all the power of his voice. As a vocalist King understands how the balance between power and restraint affects a listener's response, and he manipulates this balance with a master's skill.
In 1999 King released one of his most personal albums, a tribute to great 1940s and 1950s bandleader Louis Jordan titled Let the Good Times Roll. The album emphasizes the light-hearted side of the blues, with titles from the Jordan canon including "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens" and "Saturday Night Fish Fry." On "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town," the song that made Jordan a rhythm and blues star in 1942, King plays with delicate precision, milking the lines for their risqué humor: "It may seem funny, honey / Funny as funny can be / But if we have any children / I want them all to look like me." While Jordan's style was flashier and more exuberant than King's, the two artists share much in common. Chiefly, Jordan was one of the great musical show personalities of his day, his entertaining stage presence influencing King's own shows. In live performance, the environment longtime fans believe represents King at his best, he incorporates humor into the hardest, most biting blues, singing to the audience with mock sobs, "Nobody loves me but my mother—sometimes I think she could be jiving too." In the 1990s, although health problems forced him to perform sitting down, King remained a fascinating presence onstage: Telling jokes and closing his eyes as he played stinging riffs on his guitar (affectionately named "Lucille"), critics confirm he created an aura of high-spirited excitement.
For many music fans and performers, B.B. King represents the standard by which other blues artists are judged. His emotive singing and guitar playing have won him lasting respect among fellow musicians. Most importantly, his prolific recorded output and engaging live shows made the blues popular with a mainstream audience. Without King's lasting influence, the blues as an art form might otherwise have been neglected.
Singin' the Blues (Crown, 1956); Live at the Regal (ABC, 1965); Completely Well (Bluesway, 1969); Live in Cook County Jail (ABC, 1971); There Must Be a Better World Somewhere (MCA, 1981); Blues Summit (MCA, 1993); Blues on the Bayou (MCA, 1998); Let the Good Times Roll: The Music of Louis Jordan (MCA, 1999); Riding with the King (with Eric Clapton; Reprise, 2000); Makin' Love Is Good for You (MCA, 2000).
King, B. B.
KING, B. B.
(b. 16 September 1925 near Itta Bene, Mississippi), blues singer and guitarist whose career blossomed in the mid-1960s during the blues and folk revival.
King, the first of two sons, was born Riley B. King to Albert Lee King and Nora Ella (Pully) King, who worked as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation. (His younger brother died in infancy.) King's parents separated when he was just four, and his mother took him to live in Kilmichael, Mississippi, to be closer to her family. Between chores King attended the one-room Elkhorn Schoolhouse. After his mother's death, when King was nine, his grandmother, Elnora Farr, who sharecropped in Kilmichael, took over child rearing until her death shortly later. For five years King lived alone in a cabin and worked as a tenant farmer. Then, at age fifteen, he moved to Indianola, Mississippi, to live with his father and stepmother. King briefly attended Ambrose Vocational High School but soon returned to his mother's family and work on a cotton plantation.
On 26 November 1944 King married Martha Denton. Although he enlisted in the army in 1943, he was released after basic training because he could drive a tractor; he was thus obligated to remain in sharecropping until the end of World War II. After the war an accident, in which a tractor was damaged, sent him running to Memphis, Tennessee, ahead of the plantation owner's wrath and in search of his cousin, the legendary blues singer Booker ("Bukka") White. In Memphis, King first became a popular disc jockey and then moved into singing, recording, and touring. From White he learned exceptional vocal phrasing and a crowd-pleasing, storytelling style that White had perfected in rural Texas in the 1930s. King became a major bandleader and significant guitarist during this period. Eschewing chords, he sought the right note on his guitar, nicknamed "Lucille," which he lovingly played with an uncluttered style. He also made liberal use of his note-bending, signature tremolo and jazzy-sounding blues runs. Influential figures in his development included Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker. King first became known through an appearance on Sonny Boy Williamson's radio show in Memphis and by his association with Pepticon, a health tonic. At the same time he adopted the nickname "B. B." for "Blues Boy."
In 1951 his recording of Lowell Fulson's tune "Three O'Clock Blues" became his first hit. Signed to the Los Angeles–based Kent Records, King became a staple of the blues circuits. At the beginning of the 1960s King was a veteran of many years of touring on the exhausting "chitlin' circuit." In 1956 alone he and his band performed 342 one-night stands. He developed an immense repertoire of songs and led a powerful blues combo, but over the years touring cost him his first and second marriages. He divorced Denton in 1952 and married Sue Carol Hall on 4 June 1958; they divorced in 1966. He fathered approximately eight children with other women during this period.
In 1962 King moved to ABC Records, which was in the process of enlarging the fame of the legendary "soul" singer Ray Charles. King had to wait, because many young urban blacks were disenchanted with his blues style, and the mainstream white audience could barely understand his talent. He owned hard-won but limited stardom in a pop world that was open to such black rhythm-and-blues artists as Chuck Berry and Little Richard but closed to authentic blues singers like King. The way to bigger stardom did not arrive until the blues and folk revival of 1965. The popularity of the integrated Paul Butterfield Blues Band led the promoter Jim Rooney at Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to book the blues men Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Junior Wells and to pave the way for King's popularity among Harvard intellectuals.
Added to this, the prestige of Charles Keil's influential book The Urban Blues (1966), which devoted an entire chapter to the praise of King, began to open doors. Keil prophesized that eventually King would be more popular with whites than with blacks. King benefited from new, more intellectual disc jockeys oriented to the college and professional markets. As white Britons and Americans sought greater authenticity, King was ready to provide it. Another factor was the rise of the guitar maestro in the British rock music invasion. English rockers had studied blues men like King for years and used their lessons to popularize hard, driving guitar music, which began to eclipse saxophone and vocal songs. King's signature style of complex single-string runs punctuated by loud blues notes and sublime vibratos set the terms white rockers had to follow.
King's first break came in 1968. Armed with a new hit, "The Thrill Is Gone," King began making inroads into the lucrative world of young white blues enthusiasts. Appearing at the Fillmore West in San Francisco that year, he was amazed at their devotion and knowledge of his career. Although he was hampered by a change in management from the older black team that had brought him through the 1950s to an exploitative white entrepreneur, who took most of his money, King was ready for a move. He took on a new, honest promoter, who obtained dates for him on college campuses and at new, hip nightclubs across urban America. He gained further popularity on a ten-day tour with the Rolling Stones in 1969. His climb to the peak of this new world came on 8 October 1970, when he and his band performed a medley for six uninterrupted minutes on The Ed Sullivan Show, which was watched by fifty million Americans. From The Ed Sullivan Show, King parlayed his name recognition to immensely profitable appearances in Las Vegas and abroad.
King was able to extend his fame by careful management of durability and political contacts to become one of the best-known musicians of the late twentieth century. Scholars recognized innumerable other figures to be as talented as King, but with the possible exception of the legendary, but long-dead Robert Johnson, no other singer had as much popular appeal as did King. He recognized that "as long as you are out there, people don't forget you." As the blues became part of American folklore, King was the key interpreter. His name became so widely accepted that in the late 1990s, when political leaders in New York City sought to "sanitize" Times Square and Forty-second Street, King obtained a lucrative franchise to open a nightclub bearing his name. He has received innumerable honors, including doctorates from Yale and Tougaloo College in Mississippi, a 1990 Presidential Medal of Freedom, Grammy Awards in eleven different years, four hall of fame memberships, and hosts of awards from publications including Downbeat, Ebony, Living Blues, Guitar, Melody Maker, Jazz, and Pop. His talents may not be as legitimate as blues purists would like, but he is now among the major American musical legends, ranking with such legends as Tony Bennett and Ray Charles.
King's autobiography, with David Ritz, is Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B. B. King (1993). Biographical works include a chapter devoted to King in Charles Keil, The Urban Blues (1966), and Charles Sawyer, The Arrival of B. B. King: The Authorized Biography (1980).
Graham Russell Hodges