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B.B. King

King of the Blues

I think that there’s a place for playing the guitar. There’s a place for singing the blues.

Riley B. King was born to a family of poor sharecroppers on a plantation near the small town of Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta. King’s parents separated when he was only five and his mother took him to live in the nearby hill country in Kilmichael, Mississippi. By age seven he was doing the work of a grown man in the field. He was only nine when his mother died. He found inspiration in the music of the African American church. He dreamed of becoming a gospel singer and learned the rudiments of guitar from his preacher. He arranged with his employer to acquire his first guitar and taught himself further with mail-order instruction books.

B.B. King, "the Beale Street Blues Boy," at age 23, advertising his show on Memphis radio station WDIA in 1948. (Courtesy of B.B. King)
1948: B.B. King, “the Beale Street Blues Boy,” at age 23, advertising his show on Memphis radio station WDIA.

In his teens, he dropped out of school and returned to the Delta, where he drove a tractor on a large plantation. On his off hours, he sang for small change on street corners in the nearby towns, sometimes visiting as many as four towns in a single evening. He also joined small gospel groups and urged the other singers to join him in leaving the plantation life for the opportunities of the city. In the end, he made the decision to go on his own, and hitchhiked to Memphis with $2.50 in his pocket. To a farm boy, the city was an intimidating sight, but he was able to stay for a time with his cousin, the well-known bluesman Bukka White, who helped him find his way in the city’s music circles.

After a year of playing on the street and learning from the other performers who gathered on Beale Street, he was given an opportunity to perform on the blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson’s popular radio program. Soon he was playing in local night clubs and was given a regular spot on a black-run radio station. As a radio personality he was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, later shortened to “Blues Boy” King.

He made his first recording in 1949 and released six singles before the year was out. He was signed to a long-term recording contract and began to play in the small-town cafes, juke joints, and country dance halls of the region, as far away as he could travel and still return in time for his radio program. On his off hours, he sang for small change on street corners in the nearby towns, sometimes visiting as many as four towns in a single evening.

B.B. King and his guitar Lucille (Credit: F. Antolín Hernandez) (Creative Commons)
B.B. King and his trademark Gibson guitar, Lucille.

He was playing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas when a fight broke out on the dance floor. A kerosene lantern fell over and the wooden building caught on fire. At first, King fled along with the crowd, but he dashed back into the burning building to rescue his cherished guitar and barely escaped alive. When he learned the men were fighting over a woman named Lucille, he gave the name to his guitar to commemorate his close call. Ever since, he has called every one of his trademark Gibson guitars “Lucille.”

In 1951 he recorded his seventh single, “Three O’Clock Blues,” which became a national hit, staying at number one on the Rhythm and Blues charts for 15 weeks. On the strength of this hit record, he embarked on his first national tour. Appearing in New York for the first time, he shortened his stage name to B.B. King, the name under which he and his music have traveled around the world. He enjoyed a second number one R&B hit with 1952’s “You Don’t Know Me.” More hit records followed, with “Please Love Me,” and “You Upset Me, Baby.” By 1955, he had given up his radio job to tour full-time, and bought a bus he called “Big Red” to transport his band. B.B. and the band played 342 one-night stands in 1956 alone.

Still in his late 20s, he had become one of the leading performers on the blues circuit. Audiences from the Deep South to the large cities of the North thrilled to his rich, warm voice and reveled in his humor and depth of feeling. Aspiring guitarists studied his records to emulate his singing, stinging tone. With his crack horn section, he created a fresh fusion of gospel, jazz, pop and traditional blues that set a new standard.

Blues musician B.B. King played to a packed auditorium of residents and press at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk, Mass., April 3, 1978. King has been playing to prison crowds since 1972 when he and Boston attorney F. Lee Bailey formed the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation, an inmate services organization. (AP Photo/Michael S. Gordon)
April 3, 1978: B.B. King plays to a packed auditorium of residents at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk, Virginia. King has been playing to prison crowds since 1972, when he and Boston attorney F. Lee Bailey formed the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation, an inmate organization.

Disaster struck in 1958 when his tour bus collided with a gas truck on a bridge in Texas. King was not on board and none of his musicians was seriously injured, but the truck driver was killed, and the bus was burned beyond repair. King’s insurance company was in the process of dissolution following federal anti-trust action, and the accident occurred on the very weekend King’s insurance was terminated.

B.B. King performing at the 2004 International Achievement Summit in Chicago.
B.B. King performing at the famed House of Blues during the 2004 International Achievement Summit in Chicago.

It took years for King to repay the debts incurred, and while he remained popular among black audiences in the late 1950s, he did not achieve the crossover success with white audiences that contemporaries like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard enjoyed. A change of record companies did little to boost King’s career, and by the early ’60s his first fans were aging and his audience dwindling, despite another radio hit, 1960’s “Sweet Sixteen, Part I.”

King’s fortunes began to change in the mid-1960s, when a new generation of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic gratefully cited him as a major influence on their own music. He recorded a historic live album, Live at the Regal, in 1965 and returned to the Rhythm and Blues charts with “Don’t Answer the Door, Part I” in 1966. Young rockers such as George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck all displayed his influence in their playing, and B.B. King won a new audience among young rock fans. King went from playing smaller blues clubs to larger jazz and rock venues.

B.B. King, backstage with the two Grammys he won at the 43rd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, February 21, 2001. King won for Best Traditional Blues Album and for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals. (Photo by Sam Mircovich © Reuters/CORBIS)
February 21, 2001: B.B. King, backstage with the two Grammys he won at the 43rd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. King won for Best Traditional Blues Album and for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals. (Sam Mircovich)

In 1968, he played at the Newport Folk Festival, and in 1969 he opened 18 American concerts for the Rolling Stones. National television appearances on the The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show brought him his largest audience yet. In 1970 his song “The Thrill Is Gone” crossed over to the pop charts. No longer the star of a segregated minority, or the cult hero of musicians and aficionados, B.B. King had become a national institution. His tours now took him to concert halls, universities and amphitheaters, where audiences clamored for his many favorites, “Payin’ the Cost to Be the Boss,” “How Blue Can You Get,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” and “Why I Sing the Blues.” In the ’70s and ’80s, he played nearly 300 dates per year, taking his band to Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and Australia.

B.B. King receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush, December 2006. (White House)
2006: B.B. King receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. (White House)

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. He received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1987, and collected awards and honorary doctorates from the University of Mississippi, Yale University and Berklee College of Music. In 1988, he recorded a track with Irish rockers U2, “When Love Comes to Town,” for their album Rattle and Hum. The hit record and associated concert film introduced King to a whole new generation of music lovers.

February 21, 2012: United States President Barack Obama joins in singing "Sweet Home Chicago" during the In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues concert for the Black History Month celebration of blues music in the East Room of the White House on 21 February 2012. Participants include, from left: Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, B.B. King, and Gary Clark, Jr.
February 21, 2012: President Barack Obama joins in singing “Sweet Home Chicago” during the In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues concert for the Black History Month celebration of blues music at the White House. Participants include: “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, B.B. King, and Gary Clark, Jr.

Over the course of his career, B.B. King received 18 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center Honors. In 1991, he opened B.B. King’s Blues Club in Memphis; he later opened clubs in New York, Los Angeles and Connecticut. His autobiography, Blues All Around Me, was published in 1996. His 2000 release, Riding With the King, paired him with his longtime admirer, Eric Clapton. Although he suffered from diabetes, B.B. King continued to tour well into his 80s, traveling from his home in Las Vegas to play over 250 concerts per year around the world. He died in 2015, four months short of his 90th birthday. He remains the most imitated of blues guitarists, and his influence on music around the world has been incalculable.

(Academy of Achievement member B.B. King performs “Rock Me Baby” at the House of Blues during the 2004 International Achievement Summit in Chicago.)

(B.B. King performs “The Thrill Is Gone” at the House of Blues during the opening reception of the 2004 International Achievement Summit in Chicago, Illinois.)

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2004

“You have a soul, you have a heart, you have a feeling, and your music is life. Life as we’ve lived it in the past, life as we’re living it today and life as I believe we’ll live tomorrow.”

The undisputed monarch of the blues guitar, B.B. King was born on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta. As a child he learned the rudiments of his instrument from his preacher and was soon performing blues and gospel songs on street corners. In 1947 he hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee with $2.50 in his pocket to pursue a professional music career. Within a year he was singing on the radio and in local night clubs.

In 1951 he recorded his first big hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” and began touring the country, taking his music from rural juke joints and road houses to concert halls and amphitheaters around the world. His original compositions fused elements of jazz, pop and gospel music with the classic blues. In 1970, he recorded the song that became his calling card, “The Thrill Is Gone.” He released over 50 albums and received 18 Grammy Awards.

Generations of rock and blues players have imitated his fluid guitar lines, with their weeping bends and stinging vibrato. Over the years, he recorded with many of these admirers, including U2 and Eric Clapton. His contributions to his country’s cultural life were recognized with the Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Well into the sixth decade of his career, B.B. King still performed hundreds of times a year, roaming the globe as America’s Ambassador of the Blues.

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We’d like to learn how you started playing music.  As an orphan boy in the Mississippi Delta, how did you get your first guitar?  

Keys to success — Perseverance

While working for Mr. Flake Cottledge, I was what they call in the country a “house boy.”  A house boy was a guy that, excuse me, that did whatever was around to be done. And my wages, I made $15 a month, which I thought was a lot of money, fifteen dollars a month.  That’s how I got my first guitar.  People talk about people gave it to me and this and that. I didn’t. Mr. Flake Cottledge bought it for me.  He took half of my salary one month and took the other half the next month, so it cost me $15, a whole month’s salary to get it. When I would finish my chores — I used to milk 20 cows a day — 10 in the morning, 10 at night. And when I would finish, they would let me go to school and that’s how I got my schooling. And I would walk five miles to school, and I managed to make it through the tenth grade and that was it, but if I had tightened up I could have did better.  Of course, I could have done better, but without any supervision — they didn’t make me go to school.  There was no agencies around there that would take me away from where I was.  Today, if you live in the city it’s possible that some of the agencies will get you and place you here or place you, not then, not there.  But, now there were people in the area, in the community, it was sort of like a village that would have tightened you up if you got out of line.  Any of them could and would.  So, I learned at an early age to try to stay in line.  You do what society expects you to do, and that’s how I grew up.

B. B. King in Germany (Credit: Heinrich Klaffs) (Creative Commons)
American blues singer, electric guitarist, songwriter and record producer B. B. King in Germany. (Heinrich Klaffs)

So how did you decide to play the blues?

Keys to success — Preparation

I’d go to town on Saturday, after I would get through with my tractor, and sit on the street corners with my little guitar. I had a red Stella guitar, and I’d play and I’d sing, starting with gospel all the time. I’d sing me a gospel song and people would — and I guess I was kind of smart in a way because I knew where the white people passed and the black people passed, so I’d sit right at that corner where the white folks had to pass me going this way and that way and the black folks passed me going this way and that way. So, some or all would stop and listen to me because I guess I made enough noise. I had my big hat sitting down there, or a bucket or something for them to put tips in. And, people that would ask me to play, or request a song — when I finished playing it, if it was a gospel song they would pat me on the head and the shoulders and they would applaud. “Boy, that was nice. Keep it up. You’re going to be good one day.” But they didn’t put nothing in the hat. But, the people who would ask me to play a blues would always put something in the hat. Now you know why I’m a blues singer. That’s how it started.

B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt performing at the 2004 International Achievement Summit in Chicago. (Academy of Achievement)
B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt performing at the 2004 International Achievement Summit in Chicago, Illinois.

When did you know that music was going to be your life?

B.B. King: When the people started putting the money in the hat.  That’s when.  I just hoped I could be good enough to keep them doing it.  So far they still do it.

Keys to success — Vision

I happen to think that the great spirit God made us all, put us all here for a reason. And all of us have something to do, and I think we have — there’s a word I used to hear a lot called “Your Brother’s Keeper.” So I believe that I am my brother’s keeper. So, I think that there’s a place for playing the guitar. There’s a place for singing the blues. I’m harming nobody. People used the word quite often — there was a word, I guess, that came from the early slaves, when a person sang blues as I do or did, they call it “singing them old reels.” Now I haven’t found out yet what that meant, “the reels,” but I do know what they meant when they said “the Devil’s music.” But, I started thinking to myself, and I still do, they don’t equate a bus driver or a truck driver or the guy plowing the mules with working for the Devil. Why do my singing and my playing have to be working for the Devil? I tell stories like other people do in song. So, I started thinking, you know, maybe they got something for themselves, but I don’t see where I’m doing anything wrong to anyone, so why shouldn’t I? And, I started to work on it.

Bluesman B.B. King and his trusty guitar, Lucille. (Photo by Kevin Westerberg. Courtesy of B.B. King)
Bluesman B.B. King introduced a sophisticated style of soloing based on “fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that influenced many later electric guitarists.” (Photo by Kevin Westerberg and courtesy of B.B. King)

At some point you went from being a kid sitting on the street corner playing your guitar for passersby and you made a decision.  You decided you were going to Memphis and you were going to make a career of this.  What inspired you to do that?

Keys to success — Courage

I had sang with this group, sang with two groups. The first one was called the Elk Horn — like an elk’s horn — Jubilee Singers. That’s where I started in Kilmichael and I thought we was pretty good, but then when I moved to the Delta that broke up the group, and I started to sing with another group called the St. John Gospel Singers. And, I would usually sing as a lead singer, and I had started to play the guitar pretty good, so we was one of the few groups — gospel groups — that used the guitar. And, I thought we was good because we had singalong programs with some of the great, great gospel singers. We was like an opening act, open shows for them, and I personally thought we was pretty good. And, we would work our crops each year, and come harvest time we talked about leaving and going some place to record. Because there was no recording studios in the area, so we would have had to have gone to Greenwood, Greenville or to Memphis. And, I thought Memphis would be the best, because I had heard so much about Memphis and the things they was doing there. Each year for about three or four years we would talk about it, the guys and I, and every year one would say, “Well man, I didn’t make but two or three bales of cotton. I don’t have any money. I can’t leave now.” So, finally one day I said, “Well, I’m going to leave,” and that’s how I did it. I left and went to Memphis.

Going to Memphis then was like a few years ago going to London or Japan or somewhere. Memphis seemed to be far, only 100 and some miles, but so far from where I was. The buildings and everything, the big hotels and much going on. And, there was a nice recording studio. A fellow named Sam Phillips had a nice studio. I had never been in a recording studio. At that time we didn’t have stereo. Everything was mono. I went in there and I looked around, but I didn’t know the difference between mono and stereo or anything else, but I did know that he had all of the mikes on one line. Let’s say five of us are playing and one breaks a string, we all got to go back and do it again. That’s the way it was when I first started.

Before I left home I thought I could really sing and play the guitar. I thought I was really good. When I got to Memphis and went down to Handy Park — at the time I think it was called Beale Street Park — and heard those people out there, it was like a community college on the streets! I found out then that I wasn’t so good as a singer. Oh, I thought I could sing, but nothing compared to what I thought before I got there and heard these other people sing. I saw people dancing and I can’t even hardly walk. I ain’t never been able to dance in my life. If I had got a teacher or somebody that could have taught me, I could have been, but I never found anybody.

Keys to success — Preparation

I’d write and order me books. There was a guy called Nick Manoloff. Nick Manoloff had books. Guitar instruction books in the Sears Roebuck catalogue, the big one. I’d order those books and I studied them religiously, and that’s how I learned to put my fingers on — learned how to tune the guitar and learned my first bit of learning how to read music. I’m a blues singer, a blues musician, but I can read music — not fast, but I do — and I learned to even write a little bit. Now with my computer I write a little better. And, I believed in myself and that was the one thing I think that made me more confident in myself.