There can only be one “King of the Blues” and for over six decades he went by the name of B.B. King. This Mississippi native wore his crown with modesty, each year playing hundreds of shows and entertaining millions of fans with his trademark guitar sound. His most famous song, The Thrill Has Gone, has been featured in movies and on television; its title, saying so much with only a few words, has been part of the public consciousness pretty much since the song’s release. Rolling Stone magazine lists B. B. at #3 on their “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”
Over the years, B.B. has developed one of the world’s most identifiable guitar styles. He borrowed from Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and others, integrating his precise and complex vocal-like string bends and his left hand vibrato, both of which have become indispensable components of rock guitarist’s vocabulary. His economy, his every-note-counts phrasing, has been a model for thousands of players, from Eric Clapton and George Harrison to Jeff Beck. B.B. has mixed traditional blues, jazz, swing, mainstream pop and jump into a unique sound. In B.B.’s words, “When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.” – from “BBKing.com“
Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925 on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi. At the age of twelve, B.B. bought his first guitar for fifteen dollars. When you take into account that this seemingly small sum was the equivalent of about $230 today, you can understand that he was definitely driven to play guitar in order to save up that kind of money at such a young age.
During his early years he worked on farm near his home driving tractors and working as a sharecropper (a system of farming that came to an end during the 1940s in the U.S. due to mechanization.) In his twenties, he hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, the Mecca of all important musicians of the South. Here he stayed with his cousin Bukka White, already a successful musician, who would help school B.B. in the blues.
In 1948 B.B. began his career in music by performing on Memphis radio. As his popularity grew he adopted the name Blues Boy King, which was eventually shortened to B.B. King. Nearly as iconic as his name, is B.B.’s love for his trademark guitar “Lucille.” The guitar’s name came about after a near tragedy at one of B.B.’s shows. Two men got into a fight over a woman named Lucille and, while brawling, accidentally set the dance hall on fire. After initially escaping safely with everyone, B.B. realized he had left his cherished guitar behind and rushed back inside, saving the guitar while narrowly escaping death himself. It was a testament to his love for his guitar and an important lesson on how far to go for love. B.B. retells the story in the song “Lucille,” which you can find on his retrospective box set “King of the Blues.”
B.B. started recording in 1949 under a contract to RPM records. Many of his earliest recordings were produced by Sam Phillips, who later founded Sun Records. Phillips produced records for many notable rhythm and blues acts like Bobby Blue Bland and Howlin’ Wolf, and went on to play a significant role in the emergence of rock and roll by launching careers for the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.
During the 1950s B.B. toured nationally on the famed “Chitlin’ Circuit.” Backed by handpicked musicians and a relentless touring schedule, B.B. and his band sometimes played more than three hundred shows a year. His first hit single was “Three O’Clock Blues” which went to #1 on the American R&B charts. In 1968 B.B. was introduced to white audiences at the Newport Folk Festival and a series of shows at the Fillmore West, where he shared the bill with contemporary rock acts of the day like Booker T & the MG’s and The Mothers of Invention. The Rolling Stones invited B.B. King along with Ike and Tina Turner to open their shows. B.B.’s short but fiery opening set is captured on the Rolling Stone’s recently released expanded edition of “Get Yer Ya’ Ya’s Out.”
After a steady decade of blues and R&B hits like “Payin’ The Cost To Be The Boss,” “How Blue Can You Get,” and “Why I Sing The Blues,” B.B. scored his biggest hit in 1970 with “The Thrill is Gone.” The song reached #15 on the pop charts and would go on to etch itself into popular culture. The song was originally written in 1951 by Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins. B.B.’s version departs from the original as well as B.B.’s own style to that point by including a string section.
In 1988 B.B. recorded “When Love Comes to Town” with U2 for their “Rattle and Hum” album, which was meant to serve as a tribute to American music. Over the years B.B. has played live and recorded with many of the artists he helped inspire, including Eric Clapton. The pair recorded “Riding with the King” in 2000. B.B.’s most recent album is 2008’s “One Kind Favor,” which features a stripped back and pure blues. The Grammy winning album was produced by T Bone Burnett, hot off his success working with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
B.B. has been inducted into both the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s won fifteen Grammy Awards and countless other accolades. In fifty-plus years of playing live he’s given more than 15,000 concerts worldwide, including Glastonbury in 2011. Twenty years after receiving Grammy’s “Lifetime Achievement Award,” he still toured ceaselessly, quipping that he never said his “Farewell Tour” would be his last.
B.B. King was the last of the Southern-born bluesmen who defined modern electric blues in the 1950s. He died at his home in Las Vegas on May 14, 2015. He was 89.