By Todd Beebe
Stop any random person on the street and chances are, whether they’re hip to the Blues or not, they’ll know the name B.B. King.
At 87 years old, King is the worldwide ambassador of the Blues, having brought the music into over 88 countries, and having been featured in numerous movies and commercials for everything from M&M’s to One Touch Diabetic aids. He truly is the most iconic and visible legend for the Blues alive today.
Riley B. King was born September 16, 1925 in Indianola, Mississippi. Influenced by his cousin, Bukka White- another great Bluesman- young Riley soon picked up the guitar. His early musical influences also included T-Bone Walker and Blind Lemon Jefferson. The instrument became a huge force in Riley’s life, and he soon split all of his time between playing and driving a tractor for income. His sights were set on bigger things for sure, and in 1948 he landed a spot performing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show in West Memphis, Arkansas.
This exposure combined with constant performing eventually landed Riley King a job as a singer/disc jockey for Memphis’s WDIA. Around this time he began to be known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, which quickly became shortened to Blues Boy King, and eventually to the name which would give him universal acclaim: B.B. King.
King and his beloved guitar have indeed become one. People often think the mighty Lucille is one guitar alone, the same instrument he has used constantly throughout the years. The truth is, there have been numerous guitars bearing the Lucille name throughout B.B.’s career. Some have been stolen, others given to various people by King. There were several different models named “Lucille” in the early years, but most associate the now famous ES-355 custom model made by Gibson with being the “real Lucille.” The story of how the name came to be has been told time and again, but certainly deserves another mention here.
It was 1949 and the dead of winter somewhere in Twist, Arkansas. To provide heat at the time, it was common practice to light a barrel filled with kerosene. This particular night, as the kerosene burned away, so did B.B., performing for a very appreciative crowd. Soon two men began to fight and knocked the barrel over, spilling burning kerosene everywhere and igniting the building. Everyone, including King, ran outside. He realized his guitar was still inside the blazing building and rushed back inside to save it. The next day, he learned the two men who started the blaze were fighting over a woman named Lucille. He named his guitar Lucille to remind him to never do such a foolish thing again.
B.B. King’s debut recordings were made for the Bullet label out of Nashville, Tennessee. His time with Bullet was short lived, and he soon landed on the RPM label out of Los Angeles. Many of those early recordings were produced and recorded by the great Sam Phillips in Memphis.
Phillips recorded various artists that were released on the RPM label before he eventually founded his own Sun Records label. Many of these early sides (which included “Every Day I Have The Blues”, “Sweet Little Angel” and the great “3 O’ Clock Blues”) are now considered Blues classics.
For the next several years King worked tirelessly to build his reputation as the undisputed “King of The Blues.” The hard work paid off, and in 1962 he was offered a contract with the ABC-Paramount label, which was able to give him more exposure across the board. In 1964 he released the iconic live album “Live At the Regal”, recorded in Chicago at the legendary Regal Theater. Many have called it the greatest live recording of all time. Hearing the album is truly witnessing a master at work: the crowd cheers and gasps throughout, and B.B. holds them in the palm of his hand. His guitar and vocals on “Regal” are textbook examples of how it’s supposed to be done.
King found himself being hailed as the true genius he is. In the late 1960’s new artists from Eric Clapton to Michael Bloomfield constantly named him as a huge influence. Venues like the Fillmore East and West now featured B.B. on the same bill as newer artists, exposing him to a whole new generation of younger fans. When asked about how he ranked himself as a guitarist, John Lennon said, “Well, I wish I could just do like B.B. King. If you would put me with B.B. King, I would feel real silly.”
In 1969 the single “The Thrill Is Gone” was released, and elevated King to an even higher profile in the eyes of the public. The single became the biggest seller of his career, reaching #3 on the R&B list, and #15 on Pop. The song has become B.B. King’s anthem and is certainly the tune that he is most associated with.
King spent the 70’s and 80’s as a touring icon, performing over 300 shows a year and collecting countless awards. in 1987 he was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, in 2006 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1995 he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors, and he has taken home over 17 Grammy Awards including one for Lifetime Achievement in 1987.
Recent years have seen B.B. King release some of his finest work. In 2008 he released his 24th studio album, “One Kind Favor,” a hit with fans and critics alike. The King of the Blues still performs steadily in 2012, with a touring schedule that would leave most performers a quarter of his age exhausted.
Live, King often plays the great “Key To The Highway.” At the end of the song, he sings, “I’m gonna roam this old highway until the day I die.” Then he grins and adds, “I’m gonna do this till the day I die folks!”
Truly inspiring! A Bluesman for life, indeed. Play on B.B. King- The King Of The Blues.