B. B. King
The Blues Master
By Otis Stokes
Rarely has there been an artist so intrinsically associated with his genre of music than the recently departed B.B. King. When you think of blues, you think of B.B. King. The two are virtually synonymous. And although blues music originated in the Deep South near the end of the 19th century (long before Riley King was born), no one has done more to popularize the art form than King. Sadly, the world lost an international treasure on May 14, 2015 when Riley B. King died in his sleep at his Las Vegas home at the age of 89. During a recording career that spanned over 66 years, King was the recipient of 16 Grammy Awards, mostly in the blues category, but also included 1982’s Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere,” a 1997 Best Rock Instrumental Performance for “SRV Shuffle,” 2001’s Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for “Is You or Is You Ain’t (Baby),” 2003’s Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “Auld Lang Syne” and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.
Riley King was born on September 16, 1925 on a cotton plantation called Berclair near the town of Itta Bena, Mississippi. At the age of 4, Riley was sent to be raised by his maternal grandmother in nearby Kilmichael after his mother left his father for another man. Growing up, he got his first guitar at the age of 12 and taught himself how to play. In 1943, King left Kilmichael to work as a tractor driver and play guitar with the Famous St. John’s Quartet of Inverness, Mississippi, performing at area churches and on radio station WGRM in Greenwood, Mississippi. Early influences included such bluesmen as T-Bone Walker (whose “Stormy Monday,” King has said is “what really started me to play the blues”), Lonnie Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bukka White.
In 1946, looking to make a living playing the blues, King moved to Memphis, TN where he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM in West Memphis. There he began to develop an audience. King built a reputation as a hot guitarist at the Beale Street blues clubs, performing with a group known as the “Beale Streeters.” This group included vocalist Bobby Blue Bland, a longtime peer and collaborator. King’s appearances led to steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis and later to a ten-minute spot on the Memphis radio station WDIA.
The radio spot became so popular that it was expanded and became the “Sepia Swing Club.” Initially he worked at WDIA as a singer and disc jockey, gaining the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which was later shortened to “Blues Boy” and finally to “B.B.”
In 1949, King began recording songs under contract with Los Angeles based RPM Records. Many of King’s early recordings were produced by Sam Phillips, who later founded Sun Records. Before his RPM contract, King had debuted on Bullet Records by issuing the single “Miss Martha King,” which did not chart well. “My very first recordings were for a company out of Nashville called Bullet, the Bullet Record Transcription Company,” King recalled.
He assembled his own band, the “B.B. King Review,” under the leadership of Millard Lee. The band initially consisted of Calvin Owens and Kenneth Sands (trumpet), Lawrence Burdin (alto saxophone), George Coleman (tenor saxophone), Floyd Newman (baritone saxophone), Millard Lee (piano), George Joyner (bass) and Earl Forest and Ted Curry (drums). Onzie Horne was a trained musician brought in as an arranger to assist King with his compositions because, by his own admission, King could not play chords very well and always relied on improvisation. This chord weakness resulted in a style where he bends individual strings, coupled with a trilling vibrato till the notes seem to cry. In fact, King regards his guitar playing as an extension of his voice. “The minute I stop singing vocally,” King has noted, “I start to sing by playing guitar.”
King began to tour across the United States, with performances in major theaters in cities such as Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, and St. Louis, as well as numerous gigs in the chitlin’ circuit clubs down south. During one show in Twist, Arkansas, a brawl broke out between two men and caused a fire. He evacuated along with the rest of the crowd, but went back to retrieve his guitar. He said he later found out that the two men, who died in the blaze, were fighting over a woman named Lucille. King named the guitar “Lucille” as a reminder not to fight over women or run into any more burning buildings.
Following his first Billboard R&B chart #1, “3 O’clock Blues” (February 1952), B.B. King became one of the most important names in R&B music in the 1950s, amassing an impressive list of hits including “You Know I Love You,” “Woke Up This Morning,” “Please Love Me,” “When My Heart Beats like a Hammer,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “You Upset Me Baby,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Sneakin’ Around,” “Ten Long Years,” “Bad Luck,” “Sweet Little Angel,” “On My Word of Honor” and “Please Accept My Love.” This led to a significant increase in his weekly earnings, from about $85 to $2,500, with appearances at major venues such as the Howard Theater in Washington and the Apollo in New York.
1956 became a record-breaking year for King with 342 concert performances and three recording sessions. That same year he founded his own record label, “Blues Boys Kingdom,” with headquarters at Beale Street in Memphis. In 1962, King signed to ABC Records, which was later absorbed into MCA Records.
In November 1964, King recorded the “Live at the Regal” album at the Regal Theater. King later said that Regal Live “is considered by some the best recording I’ve ever had . That particular day in Chicago everything came together.”
In the mid-Sixties, King’s hard work, musical genius, affable persona and revered stature among rock icons broadened his base of support to include a new audience of white listeners who tuned into the blues and stuck with King throughout his career.
Another banner year for King was 1969, as he gained further visibility among rock audiences opening for the Rolling Stones during their 1969 American Tour. He also recorded what would become his signature song, “The Thrill Is Gone,” becoming the biggest hit of King’s career, climbing to #3 on the R&B chart and #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. The song was originally recorded and written by West Coast blues musician Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell in 1951. Hawkins’ recording of the song reached #6 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1951.
B.B. King’s version earned him a Grammy Award for “Best Male R&B Vocal Performance” in 1970 and a “Grammy Hall of Fame Award” in 1998. The song was also placed at #183 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs Of All Time.”
From the 1980s on, he maintained a highly visible and active career, appearing on numerous television shows and performing 300 nights a year. In 1988, King reached a new generation of fans with the single “When Love Comes to Town,” a collaborative effort between King and the Irish super-group U2 on their “Rattle and Hum” album.
King brought the blues from the marginal to the mainstream. His influence on a generation of rock and blues guitarists including Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Stevie Ray Vaughan, has been immeasurable. “We don’t play rock and roll,” he said in 1957. “Our music is blues, straight from the Delta.” Yet without formally crossing into rock and roll, King forged an awareness of blues within the rock realm.
Along with his fascination for the blues, King apparently acquired an interest in aviation and learned to fly in 1963 at what was then Chicago Hammond Airport in Lansing, Illinois. King became an FAA certificated private pilot and frequently flew to gigs, but in 1995 his insurance company and manager asked him to fly only with another certified pilot. As a result, he stopped flying around the age of 70.
Through it all, King has always toured and played as many concerts as his schedule and health would allow. He did however, embark on what was called a “Farewell World Tour” in 2006, which started in the United Kingdom, and continued with performances in the Montreux Jazz Festival and in Zürich at the Blues at Sunset. During his show in Montreux at the Stravinski Hall he jammed with Joe Sample, Randy Crawford, David Sanborn, Gladys Knight, Leela James, Andre Beeka, Earl Thomas, Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin, Barbara Hendricks and George Duke.
Later the same year, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for a new museum, dedicated to King, in Indianola, Mississippi. The “B.B. King Museum” and “Delta Interpretive Center” opened on September 13, 2008. These landmarks were the final stop for King where his body was laid out on May 29, 2015, in a purple satin shirt and a floral tuxedo jacket, flanked by two black Gibson guitars as fans lined up to view his open casket. King was buried at the museum bearing his name. Colin Escott wrote in his essay for the “King of the Blues” box set, “B.B. King’s achievement has been to take the primordial music he heard as a kid, mix and match it with a bewildering variety of other music, and bring it all into the digital age. There will probably never be another musical journey comparable to King’s.” I would venture to say that’s a pretty safe bet. Riley “B.B.” King has been called the “King of the Blues” and “Ambassador of the Blues,” but he was much more than that. He was a “Blues Master.”