Throughout the 1990's as well as the 1980's, 1970's, 1960's and
1950's, there has been only one King of the Blues - Riley B. King,
affectionately known as B.B. King. Since B.B. started recording
in the late 1940's, he has released over 50 albums many of them
considered blues classics, like 1965's definitive live blues album
"Live At The Regal", and 1976's collaboration with Bobby
"Blue" Bland, "Together For The First Time".
Over the years, B.B. has had two number one R & B hits, 1951's
"Three O'Clock Blues", and 1952's "You Don't Know
Me", and four number two R & B hits, 1953's "Please
Love Me", and 1954's "You Upset Me Baby", 1960's
"Sweet Sixteen, Part I", and 1966's "Don't Answer
The Door, Part I". B.B.'s most popular crossover hit, 1970's
"The Thrill Is Gone" went to #15 pop.
But B.B. King, as well as the entire blues genre, is not radio
oriented. His classic songs such as "Payin' The Cost To Be
The Boss", "Caldonia", " How Blue Can You
Get", "Everyday I Have The Blues", and "Why
I Sing The Blues", are concert (and fan) staples.
Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation
in Itta Bene, Mississippi, just outside the Mississippi delta
town of Indianola. He used to play on the corner of Church and
Second Street for dimes and would sometimes play in as many as
four towns on a Saturday night. With his guitar and $2.50, he
hitchhiked north to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1947 to pursue his
musical career. Memphis was the city where every important musician
of the South gravitated and which supported a large, competitive
musical community where virtually every black musical style was
heard. B.B. stayed with his cousin Bukka White, one of the most
renowned rural blues performers of his time, who schooled B.B.
further in the art of the blues.
B.B.'s first big break came in 1948 when he performed on Sonny
Boy Williamson's radio program on KWEM out of West Memphis. This
led to steady performance engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue
Grill in West Memphis and later to a ten minute spot on black
staffed and managed radio station WDIA. "King's Spot",
sponsored by Pepticon, a health tonic, became so popular that
it was increased in length and became the "Sepia Swing Club".
Soon, B.B. needed a catchy radio name. What started out as Beale
Street Blues Boy was shortened to Blues Boy King, and eventually
B.B. King. Incidentally, King's middle initial "B" is
just that, it is not an abbreviation.
In the mid-1950's while B.B. was performing at a dance in Twist,
Arkansas, a few fans became unruly. Two men got into a fight and
knocked over a kerosene stove, setting fire to the hall. B.B.
raced outdoors to safety with everyone else, but then realized
that he left his $30 guitar inside, so he rushed back inside to
retrieve it, narrowly escaping death. When he later found out
that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he decided
to give the name to his guitar. Each one of B.B.'s guitars since
that time have been called Lucille.
Soon after his number one hit, "Three O'Clock Blues",
B.B. began touring nationally, and he has never stopped, performing
an average of 275 concerts a year. in 1956 B.B. and his band played
an astonishing 342 one night stands. From the chitlin circuit
with its small town cafes, ghetto theaters, country dance halls,
and roadside joints to jazz clubs, rock palaces, symphony concert
halls, college concerts, resort hotels and prestigious concert
halls nationally and internationally, B.B. has become the most
renowned blues musician of the past 40 years.
B.B.'s technique is nonetheless complex, featuring delicate filigrees
of single string runs punctuated by loud chords, subtle vibratos,
and "bent" notes. The technique of rock guitar playing
is to a large degree derived from B.B.'s playing.
In the army, B.B. was introduced to the music of such guitarists
as Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker. "I heard an electric
guitar that wasn't playing spiritual", recalls B.B. "It
was T-Bone Walker doing "Stormy Monday", and that was
the prettiest sound I think I ever heard in my life. That's what
really started me to play the blues".
Over the years, B.B. has developed one of the world's most readily
identified guitar styles. He borrowed from Lonnie Johnson, Blind
Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and others, integrating his precise
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 including Eric Clapton, George Harrison
and Jeff Beck.
B.B. has mixed traditional blues, jazz, swing, mainstream pop
and jump into a unique sound. His singing is richly melodic, both
vocally and in the "singing" that comes from his guitar.
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".
"I'm trying to get people to see that we are our brother's
keeper, I still work on it. Red, white, black, brown, yellow,
rich, poor, we all have the blues".
"From my own experience, I would say to all people but maybe
to young people especially black, white or whatever color, follow
your own feelings and trust them; find out what you want to do
and do it and then practice it every day of your life and keep
becoming what you are despite any hardships and obstacles you
"I'm me," B.B. told Time Magazine in 1969, "blues
is what I do best. If Frank Sinatra can be the best in his field,
Nat King Cole in his, Bach and Beethoven in theirs, why can't
I be great, and known for it, in blues?"
Sidney A. Seidenberg, B.B.'s former manager, likens B.B. to Louis
Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. "B.B.'s goals have always been
to be like an American Ambassador of blues music to the world,
like Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra are to the jazz world.
B.B. is still the King of the Blues".
In 1967, B.B. performed at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival,
a portion of which was later aired over PBS TV. in 1968, B.B.
played at the Newport Folk Festival and at Bill Graham's Fillmore
West on bills with the hottest contemporary rock artists of the
day who idolized King and helped cross him over to a young white
B.B. has influenced Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Albert Collins,
Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Rush, Johnny Winter,
Albert King and many others while being influenced by Charles
Brown, Lowell Fulsom, Elmore James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmy
Rushing, T-Bone Walker, Bukka White and others.
In 1969, B.B. was chosen by the Rolling Stones to open 18 American
concerts for them; Ike and Tina Turner also played on 18 shows.
B.B. also made the first of his numerous appearances on Johnny
Carson's "The Tonight Show". In 1970, B.B. premiered
in Las Vegas at Caesar's Palace and at the Royal Box in the American
Hotel in New York City as well as on the "Ed Sullivan Show".
In the early 1970's, B.B. toured Ghana, Lagos, Chad and Liberia
under the auspices of the United States State Department. Besides
playing the major jazz festivals around the world.
In 1989, King toured Australia, New Zealand, Japan, France, West
Germany, Holland and Ireland for three months as a special guest
of U2. King is featured in "When Love Comes To Town"
on U2's album "Rattle and Hum". Starting in 1992, King
has headlined the Blues Music Festival of American amphitheaters
with three support acts.
On February 23, 1990 PBS started televising "All Day &
All Night: Memories From Beale Street Musicians", which featured
B.B. King and captured the lifestyles of musicians who performed
on Beale Street (Memphis, TN) from the 1920's to the 1950's when
being on Beale Street was like "living in paradise".
King recalled on the half-hour special that Beale Street was "a
place to learn, to make friends. It was a little world all of
your own. There were always musicians who were willing to help
you if you wanted to learn". And King and Rufus Thomas recalled
Amateur Night at the Palace Theatre where "anyone who could
carry a tune got a dollar for going on stage".
In 1990, King and Ray Charles co-headlined the Philip Morris
Superband five continent world tour. The final concert was recorded
and "Live At The Apollo" became King's first big band
album. In 1991, King headlined the Philip Morris Superband International
Tour again with Diane Reeves featured. And in 1991 King participated
in the all-star Guitar Legends concert in Seville, Spain, where
practically every guitar hero performed.
In 1990 King Received the Songwriter's Hall of Fame Lifetime
Achievement Award, and in 1991 the Orville H. Gibson Lifetime
Achievement Award from Gibson Guitar Company. In 1989, King's
imprint was added to the Amsterdam, Holland Walk of Fame and in
1991 to the Hollywood Walk of Fame (between Milton Berle and Vivian
Leigh). In 1973, King received the B'nai Brith Humanitarian Award
from the Music and Performance Lodge of New York.
In 1990, King received the prestigious Presidential Medal of
the Arts in Washington, D.C. with President Bush presiding. In
1991, King received the National Heritage Fellowship from the
National Endowment of the Arts. In 1995, King received the Kennedy
Over the years, B.B. has been bestowed eight Grammy Awards by
his peers: Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance, Male in
1970 for "The Thrill Is Gone", Best Ethnic or Traditional
recording in 1981 for "There Must Be A Better World Somewhere",
and Best Traditional Blues Recording in 1983 for "Blues 'N
Jazz" and in 1985 for "My Guitar Sings The Blues"
from "Six Silver Strings". In 1970, King's "Indianola
Mississippi Seeds" won for Best Album Cover, an art director's
award. In 1989 King received two more nominations: Best Contemporary
Blues Recording "King Of The Blues 1989", and Best Rock
Performance by a duo or group with vocal for "When Love Comes
To Town" with U2 from U2's "Rattle And Hum". In
1990 King received another Grammy for the album "Live At
San Quentin" as Best Traditional Blues Recording. In 1991,
King was bestowed Best Traditional Blues Recording for "Live
At The Apollo" and in 1993 the same award for "Blues
Summit". And in 1996, along with Eric Clapton, Jimmie Vaughn,
Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Dr. John and Art Neville,
King received the Best Rock Instrumental Performance for "SRV
Shuffle" from A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
B.B. King was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame
in 1984 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, where
Sting of the Police made the induction speech. B.B. was the recipient
of the 1986 National Association For Campus Activities Hall of
Fame Award. B.B. was Blues Act of the Year in 1985, 1987, and
1988 Performance Award Polls. He is a founding member of the John
F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center. B.B. King received the Grammy
"Lifetime Achievement Award" in December of 1987 at
the first televised awards in May 1990. He won the Lifetime Achievement
Award from the Blues Foundation in 1997. B.B. Has received four
honorary doctorates: Tougaloo (Mississippi) College (L.H.D.) in
1973; Yale University (D. Music) in 1977; Berklee College of Music
(D. Music) in 1982; and Rhodes College of Memphis (D. Fine Arts)
in 1990. In 1992 he received the National Award of Distinction
from the University of Mississippi.
On May 3, 1991, "B.B. King's Blues Club" opened in
Memphis, and also at the Universal City Walk in Los Angeles in
1994, and although King resides in Las Vegas, he plans to play
at his clubs at least four times a year. A B.B. King Blues Club
will open in New York's Times Square's E-Walk in early 2000.
In 1996, the CD ROM "On The Road With B.B. King: An Interactive
Autobiography" was released to rave reviews including an
"A-" in Entertainment Weekly. Also in 1996, B.B. King's
autobiography "Blues All Around Me" (written with David
Ritz) (Avon) was published and won second prize in the prestigious
Eighth Annual Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Awards. The biography
"The Arrival of B.B. King" by Charles Sawyer was published
in 1980 by Doubleday.
In November 1997, MCA released B.B. King's album Deuces Wild
with B.B. in tandem with 13 legendary artists. The lineup included
Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson,
Joe Cocker, Tracy Chapman, Mick Hucknall (Simply Red), Dr. John,
Marty Stewart, D'Angelo, David Gilmore & Paul Carrick and
Heavy D. Deuces Wild became B.B. King's second gold album.
In 1999, B.B. King released Let the Good Times Roll, his tribute
to Louis Jordan. "Louis Jordan was a great musician,"
says King, "and in my opinion, was way ahead of his time.
As people get to know him, they will realize what a great contribution
he left to the music of today."