Throughout the 1990's as well as the 1980's, 1970's, 1960's and 1950's, there has been only one King of the Blues - Riley B. King, affectionately known as B.B. King. Since B.B. started recording in the late 1940's, he has released over 60 albums many of them considered blues classics, like 1965's definitive live blues album "Live At The Regal", and 1976's collaboration with Bobby "Blue" Bland, "Together For The First Time".
Over the years, B.B. has had two number one R & B hits, 1951's "Three O'Clock Blues", and 1952's "You Don't Know Me", and four number two R & B hits, 1953's "Please Love Me", and 1954's "You Upset Me Baby", 1960's "Sweet Sixteen, Part I", and 1966's "Don't Answer The Door, Part I". B.B.'s most popular crossover hit, 1970's "The Thrill Is Gone" went to #15 pop.
But B.B. King, as well as the entire blues genre, is not radio oriented. His classic songs such as "Payin' The Cost To Be The Boss", "Caldonia", " How Blue Can You Get", "Everyday I Have The Blues", and "Why I Sing The Blues", are concert (and fan) staples.
Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation in Itta Bene, Mississippi, just outside the Mississippi delta town of Indianola. He used to play on the corner of Church and Second Street for dimes and would sometimes play in as many as four towns on a Saturday night. With his guitar and $2.50, he hitchhiked north to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1947 to pursue his musical career. Memphis was the city where every important musician of the South gravitated and which supported a large, competitive musical community where virtually every black musical style was heard. B.B. stayed with his cousin Bukka White, one of the most renowned rural blues performers of his time, who schooled B.B. further in the art of the blues.
B.B.'s first big break came in 1948 when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson's radio program on KWEM out of West Memphis. This led to steady performance engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis and later to a ten minute spot on black staffed and managed radio station WDIA. "King's Spot", sponsored by Pepticon, a health tonic, became so popular that it was increased in length and became the "Sepia Swing Club". Soon, B.B. needed a catchy radio name. What started out as Beale Street Blues Boy was shortened to Blues Boy King, and eventually B.B. King. Incidentally, King's middle initial "B" is just that, it is not an abbreviation.
In the mid-1950's while B.B. was performing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas, a few fans became unruly. Two men got into a fight and knocked over a kerosene stove, setting fire to the hall. B.B. raced outdoors to safety with everyone else, but then realized that he left his $30 guitar inside, so he rushed back inside to retrieve it, narrowly escaping death. When he later found out that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he decided to give the name to his guitar. Each one of B.B.'s guitars since that time have been called Lucille.
Soon after his number one hit, "Three O'Clock Blues", B.B. began touring nationally, and he has never stopped, performing an average of 125 concerts a year. In 1956 B.B. and his band played an astonishing 342 one night stands. From the chitlin circuit with its small town cafes, ghetto theaters, country dance halls, and roadside joints to jazz clubs, rock palaces, symphony concert halls, college concerts, resort hotels and prestigious concert halls nationally and internationally, B.B. has become the most renowned blues musician of the past 60 years.
B.B.'s technique is nonetheless complex, featuring delicate filigrees of single string runs punctuated by loud chords, subtle vibratos, and "bent" notes. The technique of rock guitar playing is to a large degree derived from B.B.'s playing.
In the army, B.B. was introduced to the music of such guitarists as Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker. "I heard an electric guitar that wasn't playing spiritual", recalls B.B. "It was T-Bone Walker doing "Stormy Monday", and that was the prettiest sound I think I ever heard in my life. That's what really started me to play the blues".
Over the years, B.B. has developed one of the world's most readily identified guitar styles. He borrowed from Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and others, integrating his precise vocal like string bends and his left hand vibrato, both of which have become indispensable components of rock guitarist's vocabulary. His economy, his every note counts phrasing, has been a model for thousands of players including Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Jeff Beck.
B.B. has mixed traditional blues, jazz, swing, mainstream pop and jump into a unique sound. His singing is richly melodic, both vocally and in the "singing" that comes from his guitar. In B.B's words, "When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille".
"I'm trying to get people to see that we are our brother's keeper, I still work on it. Red, white, black, brown, yellow, rich, poor, we all have the blues".
"From my own experience, I would say to all people but maybe to young people especially black, white or whatever color, follow your own feelings and trust them; find out what you want to do and do it and then practice it every day of your life and keep becoming what you are despite any hardships and obstacles you meet".