B.B. King was, in every sense, a giant figure in blues, intimately connected with the origins of the form, crucial to its development, and instrumental in its increasing mainstream popularity.
He combined technical skill with showmanship, married the raw emotional power of blues and the more complex structures of jazz and was an enormous influence not only on individual rock guitarists, but the very foundations of modern popular music.
His industry was no less prodigious than his influence. King released at least 50 studio albums and almost two dozen live recordings; he toured tirelessly, routinely playing 300 dates a year. He worked with artists as varied as Gladys Knight, Sonny Boy Williamson, Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Cyndi Lauper, and U2, and played at the White House in 2012 for President Barack Obama and, earlier, for Pope John Paul II.
In Rolling Stone’s 2011 list of the greatest guitarists of all time, King was ranked first. He died on May 14, aged 89.
He was born Riley King on Sept. 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation near Indianola, in the Mississippi Delta, where his parents were sharecroppers. His parents separated when he was a toddler and his mother died when he was only 9, leaving him to be brought up by his grandmother. He was later taken in by his father and stepmother.
As a child, King worked in the fields, first as a picker, then as a plowman. He was eventually promoted to tractor driver. “The earliest sound of blues that I can remember was in the fields,” he recalled in a 1988 interview. “When I sing and play now I can hear those same sounds.”
His Aunt Jemima’s Victrola introduced him to the recordings of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Sonny Boy Williamson, but his parents took a dim view of the Devil’s music, and his first musical experience was singing in the church choir.
In his early teens, however, he began to play guitar, having been given some tips by the bluesman Booker “Bukka” White (1909-1977), who was his mother’s cousin.
He briefly served in the Army in 1943, which expanded his musical knowledge. On his return to Indianola and the plantation, he began to play on street corners in the evenings and on weekends. He would play any song requested of him, but found that while the gospel numbers brought compliments, the blues would more often lead to a tip—“sometimes even a beer.”
Indianola had its share of clubs and cafés in which to play, but he wanted wider opportunities. The primary impetus for his leaving, however, was racial violence. “I saw lynchings, seen people hanging, seen people drug through the streets,” he said in 1993. “Blues music actually did start because of pain.”
He made his way to Memphis, Tennessee, where he lodged for several months with White, first met Williamson, and began playing gigs for $12 a night. King soon landed a slot as a disc jockey on the WDIA radio station, where he was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, a nickname that gradually morphed into “BB.” The defining moment of his musical development came when he heard T-Bone Walker and at once realized that he “had to” get an electric guitar—though King, who had few vices, stressed that “had to” meant “short of stealing.”
In 1949, King made his first recording, four sides for Bullet Records, and was then introduced by Ike Turner (then a talent scout) to Modern Records, recording at Sun Studios. Three O’Clock Blues, his 1951 recording for the label, went to No. 1 on the rhythm and blues charts for 17 straight weeks, and launched him to stardom.
During the 1950s alone, King recorded more than 200 discs and was regularly playing more than 300 gigs a year, a punishing schedule which he maintained for most of the next two decades. The touring was financially essential, since his records, though they sold well, benefited the label. But by 1956, when he founded his own label, Blues Boys Kingdom, and played 342 gigs, he was earning $2,500 a week.
There was a major financial setback, however, in 1958 when King’s backing band, the BB King Review, was involved in a tour bus crash and it turned out that their insurance had lapsed. King had to pay out $100,000, a sum it took him years to work off.
At a dancehall in Twist, Arkansas, a fight broke out during a gig, during which a stove was knocked over and set the building on fire. King escaped, but rushed back into the burning building when he realized he had forgotten his guitar. He christened it—and his subsequent instruments—“Lucille,” after the girl over whom the two men had quarreled.
In 1962, King signed to ABC Records (later part of MCA), and two years later released what many regard as his greatest live album, which was recorded at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. During the mid-1960s, King also began to adapt his style. He had initially been resistant to rock ’n’ roll, preferring to tinge pure Delta blues with the harmonic subtleties of jazz guitarists such as Django Reinhardt, and adapting the crosspicking and finger sliding techniques of acoustic guitar to the electric instrument. This led, among other innovations, to the first finger vibrato shaken at the wrist that became one of his most distinctive sounds.
But if there had been a slight dip in the popularity of pure blues music among American audiences caught up in the excitement of early rock ’n’ roll, on the other side of the Atlantic, King, along with other blues guitarists, had become a huge influence on emerging British bands.
By 1967, King was mildly surprised to find “long-haired white kids” in his audiences; the following year, after Martin Luther King’s assassination, he played a benefit gig alongside Jimi Hendrix, and in 1969 he opened for the Rolling Stones on their U.S. tour. The Thrill Is Gone in 1970 sold a million copies, and brought him a new following, playing at rock festivals on the same bill as artists such as Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Janis Joplin.
Later collaborators included Carole King and Ringo Starr (on BB King in London), the rock groups Living Colour and U2 (on the album Rattle and Hum and the single “When Love Comes to Town”).
He was extravagantly generous, and set up a charity for the rehabilitation of prisoners, regularly played penitentiaries—once, in Florida, the audience included one of his daughters, who was serving time for a drug violation. King, who was twice married and divorced, had 15 children by a number of women—“the only thing society will frown on me that I know about.” He was, by all accounts, remarkably abstemious in other matters, certainly by the standards of blues musicians, though he was a keen gambler, and in his later years lived in Las Vegas.
King tended to perform in tuxedo, having been advised early on that bluesmen were so disreputable that it was best to look “as though you were going to the bank for a loan.” He began a “farewell” world tour in 2006, at the age of 80, but did not play his last gigs until October 2014.
King’s honors were too numerous to list. Among his many awards, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, received the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and won more than a dozen Grammy awards, including a Lifetime Achievement and Grammy Hall of Fame award for The Thrill Is Gone.