American blues singer, guitarist, and songwriter Aided by his guitar Lucille, King was committed to preserving the history of the blues. Even when the blues fell out of musical fashion, he was tireless in his pursuit to elevate the blues to a true art form.
Born: September 16, 1925; Itta Bena, Mississippi
Also known as: Riley B. King (full name); Boy from Beale Street; King of the Blues
On September 16, 1925, Nora Ella King gave birth to Riley B. King on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a rural town near Indianola. His father, Albert Lee King, named his son Riley in recognition of the kind plantation owner. When King was young, his parents separated. His mother instilled in her son the importance of religion, and they regularly attended church. King’s interest in music was piqued when his pastor, the Reverend Archie Fair, played guitar in church and introduced the boy to the guitar and chord progressions.
Although his mother did not approve of the blues, King’s greataunt, Mima, allowed him to play the phonograph, sparking his interest in the blues music of Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, and King’s cousin Booker White. When King was eight years old, his world collapsed: His mother died. Although relatives provided stability, King’s father reentered the scene with a new family, giving King a stepmother and three half-siblings. Upon joining this family in Lexington, Mississippi, King had difficulty adjusting to life and shaking his identity as a poor country boy. Even so, during this period, his father demonstrated to and instilled in his adolescent son the values of hard work, commitment, and diligence. Discontented with school, King dropped out and returned to Indianola, where he reunited with his extended family, and heworked as a sharecropper.
On weekends King began singing and playing the blues, which resulted in cash donations greater than the earnings from a whole week’s worth of plantation labor. King quickly realized that the blues offered an attractive alternative and headed to Memphis in 1947. He had no success in Memphis, so he returned a year later and enjoyed his first break on radio stationKWEMon the Sonny Boy Williamson program. As he grew in popularity, King joined the radio station WDIA, broadcasting the Sepia Swing Club, where he created the name B. B. King. Memphis was a center for blues singers, and King’s career blossomed with Bullet Records in 1949. Soon after, King began his lifelong touring of America. King performed on the road, for more than three hundred concerts a year. This lifestyle offered little time for a stable relationship, although he would eventually father fifteen children. In the 1960’s, when blues music fell out of fashion, King continued to create music and focus on live concerts. By the 1970’s pop artists had acknowledged King’s efforts, through his persistence and workaholic schedule, to keep the blues alive.
When King reached the age of retirement, his music flourished. He performed in his seventies and eighties, preserving the blues in both live concerts and recordings. The Music King’s generation of musicians transmitted their history and their small-town experiences by singing the blues. King’s music documented the positive and negative sides of growing up in the South during an era of inequality, with King believing it his duty to preserve both sides of history. During the 1960’s, as rock and roll rose in popularity, many white musicians realized the impact of blues on the new genre, especially on rhythm, improvisation, and electric-guitar technique. At the same time, many African Americans viewed the blues as archaic and low class. Nevertheless, King made inroads in maintaining the tradition, hoping to elevate the blues to a respectable art form. King’s style of music is a dialogue between voice and guitar. King often used the guitar to extend his singing, continuing the musical line. His technique emphasized bending every note and using a bottleneck style with finger vibrato.
King’s attention to diction, phrasing, and accents on various syllables set his style apart from others. Another trademark of King’s music was his Gibson guitar, named Lucille, with an ebony pearly fingerboard. He coined the name Lucille after rescuing one of his guitars from a fire sparked during a brawl between two men fighting over a woman named Lucille. From then on, Lucille shared the applause and was acknowledged as King’s only true love. King often performed with two saxophonists, two horn players, two guitarists, a drummer, and a keyboardist. Each member played a solo that highlighted his instrument’s unique sound. Greatly influenced by the style and presentation of Duke Ellington’s band, King integrated the musicians into the concert experience, introducing each performer and frequently announcing, “Let’s hear it for the band.” Key to his engaging performances was King’s extraordinary rapport with the audience. Rather than just playing the music, King conversed with his listeners, talking about life, love, disappointments, and accomplishments.
Many in his audiences understood the challenges of growing up in a segregated world. Frequently he thanked the audience for the pleasure of playing for them and remarked, “You make me so happy.” Even though King enjoyed great success on tour, he soon realized the importance of strategically marketing and packaging the music. Throughout his career King hired a number of agencies and even unsuccessfully tried to serve as his own manager. Eventually, savvier managers designed fiveyear plans to develop, produce, promote, and expand King’s offerings, and that kept him in the spotlight. Throughout his career King completedmore than 150 albums, including two number-one rhythmand- blues singles: “Three o’Clock Blues” and “You Don’t Know Me.” Four other singles reached the number-two position on the rhythm-and-blues chart: “Please Love Me,” “You Upset Me Baby,” “Sweet Sixteen, Part I,” and “Don’t Answer the Door, Part I.” In 1960 the song “The Thrill Is Gone” rose to number fifteen on the pop chart. Live at the Regal.
This legendary performance was a pivotal point in King’s career. Set in Chicago’s famous Regal Theater, where blues, soul, jazz, and other artists rose to fame, King demonstrates a superior style of guitar playing aligned with the blues. An electrifying performer, King opens with “Every Day I Have the Blues,” which quickly became a standard in his repertoire. Other classics on the album include “Sweet Little Angel” and “It’s My Own Fault.” Live in Cook County Jail. Recorded live at the Cook County Jail in 1971, this album presents a more polished performance than the one on Live at the Regal. In an era when the blues fell out of fashion with the younger generation, King identifies with the struggles of African Americans. Unique to this performance is the popularized rendition of “The Thrill Is Gone,” which became a King favorite. In creating this album, King empathized with the struggles of the inmates and provided a glimpse into the realities of prison life. In 1972 he created the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation. Live at the Apollo. Set in New York’s famous Apollo Theater, this album captures the most popular blues compositions in a live performance.
Although King is significantly older in this recording, his voice preserves classics from his career, including “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Rock Me Baby,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” and “Sweet Little Angel.” B. B. King’s Blues Summit. In 1993 King collaborated with several blues divas, including Ruth Brown, Etta James, Katie Webster, Koko Taylor, and Irma Thomas, to make this album, which won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album. The women give a flirtatious and romantic flavor to songs such as “Since I Met You Baby,” “We’re Gonna Make It,” and “There’s Something on Your Mind.” Riding with the King. In this 2000 reprise, Eric Clapton and King exchange musical ideas in a jamsession setting. When they first met, King and Clapton wanted to fuse their styles, and in this recording the two great icons present an eight-minute rendition of the famous “Three o’Clock Blues.”
This album provides a new interpretation of the 1970 rhythm-and-blues hit “Worried Life Blues” and a rendition of “Key to the Highway” on acoustic guitars. Musical Legacy With his personal efforts, King made blues music mainstream and part of American culture. As a touring musician performing hundreds of concerts every year, King spread the understanding of the blues into world culture. Even when other musicians migrated to the more popular rock-and-roll style, King remained committed to blues music. When a new generation embraced the blues in the 1970’s and 1980’s, King’s popularity rose. King was noted for changing the way the electric guitar is played and for inspiring many blues composers.
His clear diction, phrasing, accents, and nuances made his style unique, and his blues music documented and preserved the story of the past in a signature conversational format that embraced multigenerational audiences. King received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, and he won fourteen Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984, and in 2003 Rolling Stone placed King number three on the list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. The B. B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi, preserves King’s commitment to education, promoting pride and understanding through exhibits and programs.