An Introduction To One of the Most Influential Guitarists of All Time
B.B. King (birth name Riley B. King) is a singer-songwriter and guitarist. Hailed as the King of Blues, his trademark fluid bent notes and pulsating change of pitch in his guitar picks lend a great influenced to future blues guitarists. Born in Mississippi, he began his career in 1949, cutting records that received little success. Then, King formed his own band, the B.B. King Review who later toured and performed in major cities as well as several small gigs in southern states. By the 1950s throughout the 1960s, B.B. King was the most important figures in the “chitlin’ circuit” and in R&B music, recording R&B hit singles such as “3 O’Clock Blues,” “You Know I love,” “Please Love Me,” and many others. In 1956 alone King had 342 concerts booked. His most famous hit to date, “The Thrill Is Gone” was released in 1969. He has influenced and inspired numerous blues guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendix, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman and so many others. The magazine Rolling Stone hailed him as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987.
In 2015, B.B. King died in Las Vegas, Nevada, aged 89.
The birth and rise of the King
B. B. King was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925 in Berclair, Mississippi. He spent his youth working as a sharecropper while absorbing his passion in music, initially listening to country and gospel music.
When he was a teenager he bought his first guitar, but some sources say that he was gifted with one from his cousin Bukka White, also a country blues guitarist on his own right. King followed White to Memphis, Tennessee, getting lessons from his older cousin in the rudiments of guitar playing.
King returned to Mississippi to continue his hard work as a sharecropper (along with his wife Martha), and he returned to Memphis where he stayed a bit longer. It was also there in Memphis where he started his musical career, where he initially worked as a musician/singer and DJ for the legendary local station WDIA. There, his reputation as an excellent blues guitarist grew and he gradually built his own audience. King’s on-air monicker was given as “The Beale Street Blues Boy,” which was later shortened to Blues Boy, and then abbreviated as “B. B.”
Now as B.B. King, in 1949 he signed his first contract with the Nashville, Tennessee-based Bullet Records where he issued his very first single “Miss Martha King.” That same year, he switched to RPM Records, which was based in Los Angeles, California. Many of his earliest records on RPM were helmed by a then-neophyte producer Sam Philips, who later founded Sun Records. In the winter of that same year, an accident caused a fire at the dance hall where King performed; despite facing death, he saved his beloved Gibson guitar, which he later named Lucille.
In 1951, his RPM single “Three O’Clock Blues” (his cover of Lowell Fulson) became his first charting single which even topped the R&B singles charts.
Since his first hit in the early 1950s, King had been a perennially steady hit maker, with mostly R&B smashes such as “You Know I Love You,” “Please Love Me,” “You Upset Me Baby,” “Woke Up This Morning (My Baby She Was Gone),” “Bad Luck,” “On My Word Of Honor,” and many others. In 1957, King scored his first pop hit (albeit minor) with “Be Careful With A Fool” at #95. By then King established himself as one of the premiere and esteemed R&B acts and his unique guitar style continued to inspire and influence ambitious and promising guitarists during his time.
Towards the end of the 1950s, King switched to Kent label. He continued to garner hits up to the 1960s most especially the #2 R&B hit “Sweet Sixteen.”
In late 1969 King released a single titled “The Thrill Is Gone,” his cover of Roy Hawkins original. The following year, King’s version of the song became the hit of his lifetime thus far. It went to #15 on the pop chart, his highest charting single yet on that listing; it also peaked at #3 on the R&B chart. “The Thrill Is Gone” also won King a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 1970. Nowadays, “The Thrill Is Gone” is the song that’s mostly associated with King.
In the 1970s, King was still a considerable figure on the charts, his most successful singles being “To Know You Is To Love You” (#38 pop, #12 R&B) and “I Like To Live The Love” (#28 pop, #6 R&B), both issued in 1973. He even had a top 10 dance hit with “Philadelphia” (#64 pop, #6 dance, #19 R&B) in 1974.
As the years went by B.B. King’s respectability and legend grew more considerably, while he still maintained a busy career throughout the 1980s and 1990s. His contributions as one of the greatest blues guitarists have been rewarded by an induction to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, both in 1987. He has received a slew of other awards and honors including an induction to the Blues Hall Of Fame in 1980 and an honorary degree from Yale University.
Although his studio activity has been toned down in recent years, B.B. King is otherwise still active touring. His last studio album One Kind Favor (2008) debuted at #37 on the Billboard 200 and #1 on the blues album chart. 2012 witnessed a careerspanning boxed set titled Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. B.B. King.
On May 14, 2015, B.B. King passed away in Las Vegas, Nevada from complications brought by high blood pressure and diabetes. He was 89 years old. His body was flown to Memphis, to allow mourners to pay their last respects, then was driven to Indianola, Mississippi, where he is now interred at the museum named in his honor.