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BB King

 

The blues is widely considered to be the forerunner of rock and roll, and no guitarist epitomizes the cool riffs and turns of the blues like B.B. King. He comes in at number three on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Times, for good reason. Since he first turned pro in the 1940’s, artists of all kinds have credited King with inspiring and instructing them. Musicians as diverse as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Fleetwood Mac all show the influence of B.B. King in their music. It is nearly impossible to listen to a blues guitarist today without hearing the King-inspired, sliding “bent” notes that have made the style so unique.
 
B.B. was born in the heart of the Mississippi Blues Belt in 1925, to sharecropping parents. He was named Riley B. King after an uncle that he never met. His father left the family when the boy was very young, and when he was four, his mother remarried and sent him to live with his grandmother. It was in the town of Kilmicheal, Mississippi, at his grandmother’s church, that young Riley first became interested in music. The pastor at the Holiness Church in Kilmicheal was Rev. Archie Fair, who played the guitar and led his congregation in singing. The preacher believed in the power of music to unite people and lift their mood, and his charismatic style was captivating. Rev. Fair taught B.B. to play the E, A, and B chords on the guitar, and that was the beginning of B.B.’s love of the instrument.
 
 He continued his musical training at the church by joining a gospel-singing group. During this time he looked forward to visits from his mother’s cousin, Bukka White, who was a blues musician from Memphis and would work with Riley on his music.  By the time Riley was twelve, both his mother and grandmother had died. He spent one year living alone in his grandmother’s cabin raising a cotton crop on one acre of land, and barely had enough money to survive. After that, he moved to Lexington to stay with his father where he remained for two years, but he soon became homesick for the place where he had spent his childhood. He found a white family that allowed him to work for his room and board back in Kilmicheal when he was 16, and Riley resumed singing with his group once more. His host family, the Cartledges, loaned King $2.50 to buy his first guitar from a local man.
 
In 1943, Riley moved to Indianola, Mississippi to join his cousin Birkett and three other men in a singing group called the Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers. Riley accompanied the men with his guitar when they sang, mostly at churches around the Delta region. They also gave occasional live performances on a radio station broadcast from Greenwood. He worked as a tractor driver during the day and played the guitar blues on street corners at night. Before long, Riley began using his day wages to travel around to other towns in the area, and was doubling or even tripling his income with his skills on the guitar. His exposure to other blues musicians on his travels convinced him that his future lay not with gospel music, but with the blues.
 
In 1946, Riley left Mississippi and headed to Memphis with $2.50 in his pocket and the goal of finding his cousin Bukka White. When he found him, the older blues man devoted about ten months to teaching Riley the phrasing and techniques that he would use for the rest of his life. These lessons amounted to the only formal training that B.B. would ever have. He also learned a lot from the other musicians in the Memphis area by taking part in many jam sessions and impromptu gigs.
 
In 1948, King got his first big break, disguised as a commercial jingle. A new all-black radio station in town decided to let B.B. be the spokesman for a health tonic named Pepticon. The station managers let him play anything he wanted for ten minutes as long as he remembered to plug the product. The show became very popular and was expanded in length. Eventually, King became a DJ with a program of his own entitled “The Sepia Swing Club.” It was at this point in his career that he felt the need for a catchy nickname, and after starting out calling himself the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” he later shortened his handle to the now legendary B.B. King.
 
By the second half of 1949, B.B. had been noticed by executives at Modern Records and signed a deal to record under their RPM brand that would last for ten years. Even though his early recordings did not achieve national fame, he was quite well known in Memphis and throughout the south. At the end of 1951 King released his seventh single, which turned out to be the first that made it onto the Billboard R&B charts. “Three O’clock Blues” hit the top spot early in ’52 and remained there for more than three months. The national exposure landed him some concerts at large venues in Washington D.C., Harlem, and Baltimore. B.B. took a leave of absence from his radio job and never looked back.
 
“Three O’clock Blues” made the bluesy style so beloved in Tennessee accessible to the rest of the country, and King’s first tour was well received. The song was a good example of B.B.’s ability to make his guitar weep and sing through the use of electric amplification and vibrato. There were strong country and jazz elements in King’s early performances, and audiences liked what they heard. He was the first guitarist to play an electric guitar in a totally different way than the way he played an acoustic, and he set the standard for those to follow him.
 
Throughout his career, B.B. King has named his guitars, “Lucille.” While most people assumed this was because he wanted to honor a girlfriend or other woman in his life, the true story is more interesting. The habit began when B.B. was playing at a little honky-tonk in Arkansas. Toward the end of the evening, a fight broke out between two patrons of the club, which resulted in a kerosene heater being overturned. Fire swept through the place and B.B. and everyone else ran to escape the flames. At the last minute, B.B. returned to rescue his guitar from the blaze. He nearly succumbed to the smoke and heat, but made it out in one piece. When things quieted down, King learned that the fight had been started because of jealousy over a woman named Lucille, and King has named each of his guitars in her honor ever since. Most of the “Lucilles” that have belonged to King have been Gibson ES –355’s. He has always been willing to play any and every kind of guitar he can find however, and has owned instruments made by Fender, Silverstone, and Gretsch. In recent years the Gibson Company has manufactured an approved model bearing B.B. King’s name.
 
After an impressive string of hits during the 50’s, B.B. moved his association from Memphis-based RPM to the national ABC Record label in 1962. The additional exposure helped him to reach audiences usually fond of soul, pop, and rock music. British artists like Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger both give King credit for influencing their sound when they were up and coming musicians. It took several years, though for B.B. to become well known with white American audiences. In 1965 a new group called the Butterfield Blues Band released an album on the Elektra label that gained great popularity in the American heartland. When guitarists Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield were asked where they learned to play their exciting, bluesy guitar licks, they replied that they had copied B.B. King. 
 
With many music fans finally recognizing him, in 1970, “The Thrill is Gone,” landed King on the pop charts for the first time, and won him a Grammy Award that year. He also made two television appearances that indicated that he had really hit it big. He was a guest on the Tonight Show, and played guitar on The Ed Sullivan Show.
 
King continued to tour and record during the 70’s and 80’s, and proved to be nearly inexhaustible. For years he averaged more than 300 nights on the road annually. In the 80’s and 90’s he has been the humble recipient of many awards including an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.  B.B.  King has been granted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys, and won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To date, he still plays Lucille, and makes occasional appearances to enthusiastic crowds. It seems that the world has finally realized what folks in Memphis have known for more than fifty years. B.B.  King is the undisputed King of the Blues.

     

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