B.B. King has been called the King of the Blues, one of the Three Kings of the Blues (along with fellow singer/guitarists Freddie King and Albert King), one of the most influential guitarists in music and a living legend. Not one of those hosannas and accolades is hyperbolic.
The 87-year-old Riley B. King was born in 1925 in tiny Itta Bena, Miss. He has been recording and performing for 64 years and has gifted the world with classic songs such as The Thrill Is Gone, Sweet Sixteen, Paying the Cost to Be the Boss and Why I Sing the Blues, to name a few. King has collected numerous awards, including 15 Grammys.
He won a 2009 Grammy for his most recent studio release, One Kind Favor, featuring Kings versions of songs by his personal influences. Hes been inducted into both the blues and rock halls of fame and has been recognized by governments for his contributions to the blues and music. He received the National Medal of Arts in 1990; the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship; Kennedy Center Honors in 1995; the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2006; and the Polar Music Prize, bestowed by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music for his significant contributions to the blues.
Though the blues has had its commercial peaks and valleys in popular music and pop culture, King has long been and is still an icon of the genre, with his booming voice and signature tone a much-imitated style of singing accompanied by vibrato notes coaxed from his trademark guitar, the Gibson ES-355 known as Lucille.
Just as Bob Marley is to reggae, King is the blues musician that every music lover remotely interested in the blues should know and whose music they should own.
Kings story is the classic American tale. His parents split up when he was 4 and his mother died before he turned 10. He spent 10- to 12-hour days working in the cotton fields as a preteen. By 14, King was essentially on his own and living in a cabin, with his aunt and grandmother keeping an eye on him.
He first heard the blues on his great-aunts phonograph and was entranced by seminal artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt and Lonnie Johnson. He also sang gospel music in church and played gospel and blues on his guitar on street corners, where he first discovered some basic economics: Passersby who requested gospel tunes never tipped him, but the blues fans did.
After a brief stint in the Army, King moved to Memphis, where he worked a regular job by day and performed anywhere on the citys famed Beale Street strip that would have him by night.
King got a job as a radio DJ on the colored station WDIA, where he took the name Beale Street Blues Boy, which was shortened to Blues Boy and, eventually, just B.B. During that time, he met several of his contemporaries and future rivals, including Howlin Wolf.
King got a record deal in 1949 but didnt have a hit until three years later, with a version of Lowell Fullsons Three OClock Blues, which sat atop Billboards R&B chart for five weeks.
The blues fell out of favor in the 1960s, with much of the young core black audience into the more refined sounds of Motown and James Browns syncopated Southern-fried funk and other contemporary R&B/soul music. But, by the middle of the decade, a generation of young, mostly white musicians (the British guys as Kings fellow legend and acolyte Buddy Guy calls them) and their college-age listeners began discovering Kings smooth mix of urbane electric blues and soul.
In 1970, he had his biggest hit and now blues standard, The Thrill Is Gone. The simmering, minor-key blues ballad, laced with a citified strings arrangement, is a fine snapshot of Kings powers.
The tortured, pleading vocal was explicitly about a man breaking free from a mean, mistreatin mama. but, as Mark Humphrey points out in the liner notes for the excellent 2004 B.B. King Anthology: 1962-1998, the song captured some of the malaise of 1970 America, deeply divided along several lines (racial, generational) and still much mired in Vietnam.
Additionally, the hope and idealism of the hippies and the Summer of Love had given way to serious drug problems, and sobering, shocking events such as the Kent State shootings.
Throughout the 70s, while many of his peers were struggling professionally and stuck on the chitlin circuit, King was playing theaters and large halls. He adroitly adapted his music without losing its core. He enjoyed listening to records by young R&B acts such as Parliament/Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone, and added a bit of their spacey funk to his own music with songs such as Never Make a Move Too Soon.
Even in the 80s, when mechanized rhythms and synths became the sound of pop music, King managed to have a Top 15 R&B hit in 1985 with the title song to the John Landis film Into the Night.
Then, in the late 80s, when King was in his 60s, a little Irish alt-rock band called U2 whose catalog contained very little obvious blues influences invited the legend to record and perform a new song written with King in mind, When Love Comes to Town, that would appear in the film and on the soundtrack to the bands road movie Rattle and Hum.
Though the film was criticized for being self-absorbed and self-indulgent, critics hailed Kings brief on-stage cameo (and his on-camera admittance that he never really learned to play chords). U2 went on to invite King to tour with the band in 1989 and 1990, exposing him to the MTV generation.
For the past 20 years, King has steadily released albums, including 2000s Riding With the King, a collaboration with his longtime buddy and one of the more famous British Guys influenced by King, Eric Clapton. It won a Grammy, topped Billboards Top Blues Albums and sold double platinum.