B.B. King

  • Born Riley B. King, blues singer, guitarist and songwriter in 1925 from Itta Bena Mississippi. Died in 2015 from small strokes as a consequence of his diabetes.
  • Hard to slot King into a decade – the legend released recordings over 6 decades (50s through 00s) and maintained a heavy performance schedule until his health began to fail in 2014. I’ve wedged him into the 70s – he could be in every decade of my blog.
  • As a child, he sang in the gospel choir at church, and got a guitar when he was 12. In 1941, the radio program King Biscuit Time started to air (it’s the longest running daily radio program in history), and King listened to it while on break from working at a cotton plantation. The show featured Mississippi Delta blues music, and King was hooked. He decided that he wanted to become a radio musician. In 1943, he played guitar with a group of gospel singers that performed at churches in Mississippi and on the radio. He followed a family friend to West Memphis Arkansas in 1948 and performed on a local radio program, and started to develop an audience. This led to steady work at a club, as well as a job at WDIA in Memphis as a disc jockey and singer. His DJ name was Beale Street Blue Boy, later shortened to Blues Boy, and finally, just B.B.
  • In 1949, he signed a recording contract. His first single, Miss Martha King, didn’t chart. He assembled his own group, the B.B. King Review, with trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass, drums, and King on electric guitar, with most of King’s work improvised. They performed at theaters and clubs across America. During a show in Arkansas, a fight broke out between 2 men in the audience, and a fire started. The building was evacuated, but King re-entered to get his guitar. He discovered that the men were fighting over a woman named Lucille, so he named his guitar Lucille after the incident. King’s Lucille guitar became as iconic as King himself – it has its own Wikipedia web page.
  • King’s first single to chart was in 1951 – 3 O’Clock Blues reached #1 on the R&B chart. It was the first of 69 singles that would reach the R&B chart. Of these, 19 would be in the top 10. He won his first Grammy award in 1971 for his most famous song, The Thrill Is Gone – the song also was given the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998, and it was his highest charting song on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching #15. He released 47 studio albums and 13 live albums (2 of the live albums – Live at the Regal and Live in Cook County Jail make Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums list).
  • In the 50s, he was one of the biggest stars of R&B music, and certainly the hardest working. In 1956, he performed 342 concerts as well as 3 recording sessions. He continued to be a major force in R&B, and was the face of blues guitarists, until his death. Rolling Stone puts him at #6 of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time, and it’s safe to say that the 5 guitarists ahead of him (Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix) all were highly influenced by King.
  • King received many, many awards and accolades. He won 15 Grammy awards, most frequently for Best Traditional Blues Album. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award that same year. In 1995, he was chosen for a Kennedy Center Honor award, and in 2006 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • You MUST watch B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan (and others) perform The Thrill Is Gone from a live performance in Chicago in 2010. Enjoy these masters! B.B. starts playing at the 6:00 minute mark of the video.

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