B.B. King - Biography
Long known as “The King of the Blues,” singer-guitarist B.B. King is the blues, to many. Certainly, he is the last of the great titans — Waters, Wolf, Hooker — who invigorated the postwar electric blues sound. However, over the course of a 60-year recording career, B.B. has transcended the “blues” label. He has become an international pop star, and few luminaries in the entertainment industry have declined the opportunity to sit at the feet of the master. In the new millennium, he’s more than a musician — he’s a brand: Maybe you’ve stopped by for a meal and a show at B.B. King’s on Beale Street in Memphis or at Universal Citywalk in Universal City, CA. He is also the music’s truest ambassador, having taken it to the farthest-flung corners of the globe.
He is a looming (albeit humble) figure, but he attained his stardom by doing one thing and one thing only: playing the blues. King said in 1957, “We don’t play rock ‘n’ roll. Our music is blues, straight from the Delta. I believe we’ll make it on that.” B.B. didn’t get over by catering to the early rock ‘n’ rollers, or by picking up an acoustic guitar during the folk-blues boom of the ‘50s. He only belatedly crossed over to a rock audience. He had been performing for more than two decades when he made his first appearance before a white audience at the Fillmore in San Francisco. He had been recording for 20 years before he released his first top 20 pop hit. He took a long road to the top, but he always drove it his way.
He is one of the most powerful, expressive, and emotionally direct of blues singers. But he has made his greatest impact as a guitarist. The sound of his lady “Lucille” — a Gibson ES-355, one of a long line of hollow-bodied Gibsons that King has played during his career —seduced many a young musician. King synthesized the styles of several important guitarists — the versatile, virtuosic ‘20s jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, swing giant Charlie Christian, the gypsy master Django Reinhardt, and, perhaps most importantly, pioneer ‘40s electric bluesman T-Bone Walker — into a fluid, stinging, distinctly modern, and immediately identifiable attack. Other brilliant axemen like Buddy Guy and Otis Rush followed the lead they heard in his ‘50s recordings. There have been other Kings in blues — Albert and Freddy spring to mind — but only one “King of the Blues.”
He was born Riley B. King on Sept. 16, 1925, in Berclair, Miss., a hamlet near the town of Itta Bena (often cited as B.B.’s birthplace), down highways 49 and 61 from Memphis. His father and mother split up when he was four; he lived with his mother until she died, at 25, when he was nine. He had already begun singing in church, and was impressed by the electric guitar work of Pentecostal preacher Archie Fair. He acquired his first guitar, a secondhand Stella, at the age of 12. He worked as a tenant farmer with his father in Kilmichael, Miss. After years of picking cotton, he moved to nearby Indianola, Miss., where he drove a tractor for $22.50 a week.
King began singing and playing guitar as a member of the Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers, a sacred group styled after the Golden Gate Quartet. In his teens, he fell under the spell of Lonnie Johnson’s recordings (“That’s God on Earth,” he would later say of Johnson), and he was much impressed by the flashy image and playing of his cousin Booker (or Bukka) White, a brilliant slide guitarist who had recorded for Victor and Vocalion. White — who had served time on the prison farm at Parchman for a shooting — would travel down the highway from Memphis to Indianola to visit family and perform. King later said he moved further away from religious music and towards the blues during a brief stint in the military (which ended when the owner of the plantation he worked on secured him a deferment as an essential employee).
A 1946 accident in which King destroyed a tractor truly set him on the road to the blues. King panicked and, quickly grabbing his guitar and a few belongings, he hit the road to Memphis with $1.25 in his pocket. He was taken in by his cousin White, who set him up with a day job and brought him to house parties and other gigs. After eight months of steady musical work, he missed his wife and home and returned to Indianola to settle up with his boss and return to farming. But in 1949 he left his wife behind — that marriage and a second one would end in divorce -- and moved to Memphis again.
On this fateful trip, he secured a gig at the 16th Street Grill after the club’s usual star, harmonica wizard Sonny Boy Williamson (II), realized he had another booking that night and recommended King as his replacement. He was hired for $12 a night to fill the slot — but the job was contingent on securing a radio show like Sonny Boy’s “King Biscuit Time,” then broadcast on KWEM in West Memphis, Ark.
The next day, King talked his way into the downtown offices of WDIA, then the only radio station in the nation catering exclusively to African-American audiences. Owner Bert Ferguson asked the guitarist if he could write a jingle for one of the station’s advertisers, the patent medicine Pep-Ti-Kon. His rapidly concocted number earned him a 10-minute show pitching the product. He was soon billed at the 16th Street Grill and on the air (as a DJ and performer) as “the Beale Street Blues Boy” — quickly shortened to “Bee Bee” King, and then simply to B.B.
In July 1949, Ferguson’s connections with the operator of an independent Nashville label led to B.B. King’s first recording session. In one of WDIA’s studios, he cut four sides with bassist Tuff Green’s band for Bullet Records; the numbers were all undistinguished jump blues, with King imitating Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker without excellence. In its review of the first single “Miss Martha Wright” (about the wife he left behind in Missisippi), the trade magazine Billboard wrote, “A low down heavy beat keeps that blues shouting ballad from dying.” A second single went nowhere as well, but King was on the radar.
The following year, Jules and Saul Bihari, who operated the Los Angeles-based R&B label Modern Records with their brother Joe, scouted and signed King. His first sides were recorded in Memphis by Sam Phillips, a local engineer who had recently established his studio, Memphis Recording Service. The association proved short-lived: The Biharis, who had right of first refusal on anything Phillips recorded, were infuriated when the producer sold Jackie Brenston’s smash hit “Rocket ‘88’” to their Chicago rival Chess Records, and dropped him. King, who did not play his best on these sessions, and Phillips, who shortly founded Sun Records, were both earmarked for bigger things.
Without a studio at their disposal, the Biharis recorded King’s single “3 O’Clock Blues” at the Memphis YMCA. Despite its low-rent provenance, this smoldering slow blues, issued on Modern’s RPM imprint, became B.B.’s first No. 1 R&B single, holding the top of the chart for five weeks in early 1952. It was the first of four chart-topping R&B hits he would issue over the next two years.
The hits began to flow for B.B. King. During his 11 years with the Modern organization, he would cut 28 chart records, including such signatures as “Woke Up This Morning,” “You Upset Me Baby,” Every Day I Have the Blues” (his longtime theme), “Sweet Little Angel,” “Please Accept My Love,” and “Sweet Sixteen.” His popularity on the R&B charts was stoked in no small measure by his commitment to touring the Southern “chitlin’ circuit.” Booked first by Universal Attractions in New York and then by Houston’s Buffalo Booking (a company run surreptitiously by Duke Records’ Don Robey), King hit the road relentlessly, logging thousands of miles in his bus “Big Red.” In 1956, he played a staggering 342 one-nighters.
The hits never stopped, but King became dissatisfied with his label; during one impasse in 1958, he actually recorded a session for Modern’s much-loathed rival Chess. He reached the end of the line with the Biharis in 1962: He had wearied of seeing his albums sold for 99 cents in cut-out bins on Modern’s budget label Crown, while competitors like Muddy Waters had their work marketed as top-line releases. He was signed to ABC-Paramount Records by Sam Clark, the executive who had recently snagged Ray Charles from Atlantic, for a $25,000 advance. (Modern continued to sell King material, often with superfluous overdubbing, into the ‘70s.)
King’s first records on ABC-Paramount were not significantly different from those he recorded in his last years with Modern. He favored big, jazzy bands to back his mature vocals and slashing guitar work (now a sleek, personalized amalgam of his original influences, with a full tone and a distinctive finger vibrato).
The label recorded a fairly typical set by King and his band on Nov. 21, 1964, at the Regal Theatre, the blues showcase on Chicago’s South Side. The resultant album Live at the Regal (1965) caught King the entertainer at the height of his prowess, ripping a vocal crowd apart with a powerful rundown of his biggest hits. While the album didn’t make the national charts, it became a touchstone for an entire school of budding guitarists — many of them white.
Still, it would be a couple of years before King’s music found new listeners beyond the cognoscenti. In 1966 — the year he scored the No. 2 R&B hit “Don’t Answer the Door” — Charles Keil noted in Urban Blues, his breakthrough study of contemporary blues performers, “B.B. King is the only straight blues singer in America with a large, adult, nationwide, and almost entirely Negro audience.” Unlike Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Howlin’ Wolf, King hadn’t worked the coffeehouse circuit, played the Newport Jazz Festival or the Newport Folk Festival, or toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. White listeners hadn’t passed him by — they didn’t know he existed. He had played the game his way, and he was still playing to the same crowds he had since the early ‘50s. That was about to change, though.
Unbeknownst to King, he had become a totemic figure to a new breed of young white blues guitarists, for whom he was the ne plus ultra of fretmasters. A couple of these acolytes, Michael Bloomfield, of Chicago’s Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Steve Miller, who fronted his own San Francisco-based group, advised Bay Area rock impresario Bill Graham to book King on one of the eclectic bills at his ballroom the Fillmore. King — who had played the venue before, when it had hosted R&B package shows -- made his debut appearance there on Feb. 26, 1967, with The Steve Miller Band and Moby Grape, before an audience of long-haired white kids who knew him by reputation only. Introduced by Graham as “the chairman of the board,” he was greeted with a standing ovation, and burst into tears.
From that point forward, King’s career moved on the upswing. He continued to play the rock ballrooms, and his imaginative new manager Sid Seidenberg (originally his accountant) started to secure dates for him in another yet unplumbed area — Las Vegas showrooms. In 1969, he opened several shows on The Rolling Stones’ US tour. His albums began to sell: Live and Well (1969), which included the hit “Why I Sing the Blues,” reached No. 56. Only one thing still eluded him: a major pop hit.
That elusive item materialized in 1970, when King released an inspired cover of R&B balladeer Roy Hawkins’ 1951 hit “The Thrill is Gone.” Evocatively produced by Bill Szymczyk (later The Eagles’ producer) with a lush string arrangement by Bert DeCoteaux, the song leaped out of radios, and became King’s first crossover hit, reaching #15 on the Hot 100 — his biggest single ever. It also garnered him the first of his 14 Grammy Awards. It was the beginning of King’s true pop eminence.
Several noteworthy bestselling albums succeeded “The Thrill is Gone.” Indianola Mississippi Seeds (1970) paired King with a pair of hot young songwriter-pianists, Carole King and Leon Russell. Live at Cook County Jail (1971) led to King’s founding of a charitable organization, the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation. He made the inevitable bluesman’s Odyssey to England to record with British stars on B.B. King in London (1971). He made two successful records with an old Memphis contemporary, Bobby “Blue” Bland: Together For the First Time…Live (1974) and Together Again…Live (1976). He ended the decade with two albums with the jazz trio The Crusaders, Midnight Believer (1978) and Take It Home (1979).
The ‘80s were a fairly fallow period for B.B. commercially — only four of his albums grazed the lower half of the charts -- but it ended on a major upswing. In 1987, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The next year, U2 — then in the flush of their immense success after The Joshua Tree (1987) — featured King on “When Love Comes to Town,” a track on their No. 1 album Rattle and Hum (1988), the soundtrack album for their film documentary. A third generation of listeners was thus introduced to the King of the Blues.
The ‘90s began a run of all-star sit-downs that included Blues Summit (1993), with John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Lowell Fulson, Robert Cray, and Joe Louis Walker, and Deuces Wild (1997), with The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, and Joe Cocker, among many others. One delightful and unfairly overlooked project was Let the Good Times Roll (1999), a recital of hits originated by the ‘40s’ great R&B star Louis Jordan.
Approaching 75 at the turn of the millennium, King celebrated with the biggest album of his career. Riding With the King (2000) was a set that had been in the works since the ‘60s: a collaboration between B.B. and Eric Clapton, the rock virtuoso who had long credited the elder bluesman with the inspiration for his style. The concept was irresistible, and found the two guitarists in relaxed interplay on a selection of blues standards. The album peaked at No. 3 on the pop chart and sold more than 2 million copies.
Clapton also appeared on B.B. King and Friends — 80 (2005), an all-star birthday celebration, largely comprising remakes of past hits, with guests including Bobby Bland, Elton John, Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top, John Mayer, Mark Knopfler, Roger Daltrey, Gloria Estefan, and Sheryl Crow. As the decade moved on, King looked back yet again: One Kind Favor (2008), produced by T Bone Burnett, was a satisfying recital of pre-war blues numbers, with a big tip of the hat to B.B.’s original inspirations, Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker.
King, who has now appeared in 90 countries around the world, has shown signs of slowing down since he was diagnosed with diabetes in 1990. But does a tour schedule of 100 to 150 dates a year qualify as “slow” for a man in his seventh decade of performing? He maintains this routine for his fans, to be sure, since he would appear to have no new worlds to conquer. He has received the Polar Music Prize — the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for literature -- from the King of Sweden, had an audience with Pope John Paul II, and hung out at the White House. As his subjects have remained true to him, the King of the Blues has remained faithful to his fans. Check your local listings: He may be in your town tonight.