Riley “B.B.” King has been called the “King of the Blues” and “Ambassador of the Blues,” and indeed he’s reigned across the decades as the genre’s most recognizable and influential artist.
His half-century of success owes much to his hard work as a touring musician who consistently logged between 200 and 300 shows a year. Through it all he’s remained faithful to the blues while keeping abreast of contemporary trends and deftly incorporating other favored forms - jazz and pop, for instance - into his musical overview. Much like such colleagues and contemporaries as Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker, B.B. King managed to change with the changing times while adhering to his blues roots.
As a guitarist, King is best-known for his single-note solos, played on a hollowbody Gibson guitar. King’s unique tone is velvety and regal, with a discernible sting. He’s known for his trilling vibrato, wicked string bends, and a judicious approach that makes every note count. Back in the early days, King nicknamed his guitar “Lucille,” as if it were a woman with whom he was having a dialogue. In fact, King regards his guitar as an extension of his voice (and vice versa). “The minute I stop singing orally,” King has noted, “I start to sing by playing Lucille.”
There have been many Lucilles over the years, and Gibson has even marketed a namesake model with King’s approval. King selected the name in the mid-Fifties after rescuing his guitar from a nightclub fire started by two men arguing over a woman. Her name? Lucille.
King doesn’t play chords or slide; instead, he bends individual strings till the notes seem to cry. His style reflects his upbringing in the Mississippi Delta and coming of age in Memphis. Seminal early influences included such bluesmen as T-Bone Walker (whose “Stormy Monday,” King has said, is “what really started me to play the blues”), Lonnie Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bukka White. A cousin of King’s, White schooled the fledgling guitarist in the idiom when he moved to Memphis. King also admired jazz guitarists Charlie Christian and Django Reinhart. Horns have played a big part in King’s music, and he’s successfully combined jazz and blues in a big-band context.
“I’ve always felt that there’s nothing wrong with listening to and trying to learn more,” King has said. “You just can’t stay in the same groove all the time.” This willingness to explore and grow explains King’s popularity across five decades in a wide variety of venues, from funky juke joints to posh Las Vegas lounges.
More than any other musician of the postwar era, King brought the blues from the margins to the mainstream. His influence on a generation of rock and blues guitarists - including Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Stevie Ray Vaughan - has been inestimable. “We don’t play rock and roll,” he said in 1957. “Our music is blues, straight from the Delta.” Yet without formally crossing into rock and roll, King forged an awareness of blues within the rock realm, particularly in the Sixties and Seventies.
Born on a cotton plantation in tiny Itta Bena, Mississippi, in 1925, King moved to Memphis, Tennessee in his early twenties with the intention of making his living playing the blues. He landed a regular spot as a deejay and performer on radio station WDIA, where he became known as the Beale Street Blues Boy (hence, “B.B."). King also built a reputation as a hot guitarist at the Beale Street blues clubs, performing with a loose-knit group known as the Beale Streeters. This group included vocalist Bobby Blue Bland, a longtime peer and collaborator.
King began recording in 1949 and signed with West Coast record man Jules Bihari a year later. He would record prolifically for the Bihari brothers’ labels - RPM, Kent and Crown - through 1962. King’s first hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” topped the rhythm & blues chart for five weeks in 1952. Other classics cut by King in the Fifties include “Sweet Black Angel,” “Every Day I Have the Blues” and three more R&B chart-toppers: “You Know I Love You,” “Please Love Me” and “You Upset Me Baby.”
Dissatisfied with royalty rates and songwriting credits, King signed with ABC-Paramount in the early Sixties, when his contract with the Biharis expired. At that time, ABC was cultivating a stable of black artists that included Ray Charles, Lloyd Price and Fats Domino. They paired King with an arranger, and his studio records took on a more polished, sophisticated and eclectic tone. Pushing the blues in new directions, King was rewarded with such breakthrough hits as “The Thrill Is Gone,” which featured his soulful voice and guitar over a backdrop of strings. He also cut raw, energetic concert LPs - Live at the Regal (1965) and Live at Cook County Jail (1971) - that are classics of the genre.
Live at the Regal, recorded before a lively crowd at a black Chicago nightspot of longstanding, is the perfect match between performer and audience, with the latter’s enthusiasm fuelling the former’s fire. Other highlights of his lengthy tenure at ABC include a pair of mid-Seventies live albums with Bobby Blue Bland and Midnight Believer, a jazzy collaboration with the Crusaders. Blues purists treasure such back-to-the-roots efforts as Lucille Talks Back (1975) and Blues ‘n’ Jazz (1983). Favorites of rock fans include Indianola Mississippi Seeds (1970), which found King joined by Leon Russell, Joe Walsh and Carole King; B.B. King in London (1971), made with a host of British rock musicians; and Riding With the King (2000), a collaboration with Eric Clapton. King won Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Blues Recording for Live at the Apollo (1991) and Blues Summit (1993).
Through it all, King has toured as prolifically as any performer in history. The road has been him home since the mid-Fifties. He reportedly performed 342 shows one year, and he’d average more than 200 shows annually even into his seventies. Each June he sets aside a few weeks for himself, going back to Indianola for what he calls “the Mississippi Homecoming.”
At the start of his career, King’s reach didn’t extend beyond the network of clubs and juke joints known as the chitlin’ circuit. Somewhat prophetically he noted, “We don’t play for white people…. I’m not saying we won’t play for whites, because I don’t know what the future holds. Records are funny. You aim them for the colored market, then suddenly the white folks like them, then wham, you’ve got whites at your dances.”
Sure enough, in the mid-Sixties, King’s hard work, musical genius, affable persona and revered stature among rock icons broadened his base of support to include a new audience of white listeners who tuned into the blues and stuck with King for the long haul. King came to the attention of yet another generation of younger listeners when he recorded “When Love Comes to Town” in 1988 with U2 for their Rattle and Hum album and movie.
“B.B. King’s achievement has been to take the primordial music he heard as a kid, mix and match it with a bewildering variety of other musics, and bring it all into the digital age,” Colin Escott wrote in his essay for the King of the Blues box set. “There will probably never be another musical journey comparable to [King’s].”
The final word belongs to King himself, testifying on the healing quality of the genre he embodies. “I’m trying to get people to see that we are our brother’s keeper,” King has said. “Red, white, black, brown or yellow, rich or poor, we all have the blues.”
B.B. King passed away on May 14, 2015. He was 89.
B.B. King (guitar, vocals; born September 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015)