Born Riley B. King September 16, 1925, in Itta Bena, MS; son of Albert Lee and Nora Ella King; married Martha Lee,(divorced); married Sue Hall, June of 1958 (divorced 1966). Addresses: Management--Sidney A. Seidenberg, 1414 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.

In the late 1940s Riley B. King worked his way from the cotton fields of Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was dubbed B.B. (short for Blues Boy) and earned a reputation as a first class blues man. For more than 50 years the name B.B. King would remain synonymous with blues music everywhere. King started his career on Memphis's Beale Street and became a blues legend. He became known as the King of the Blues, a rank of music royalty he would share with another Memphis legend, Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll. There are, in fact, ten-foot high bronze statues of both Kings--B.B. and Elvis--on Beale Street. King, with the help of his guitar "Lucille," developed a singular musical style. Without the fullness of chords, King combined just the right combination of guitar picking, string stretching, and powerful singing to emote his blues message. King's art stems from the powerful sentiment of his life and times, which he renders through his music.

King was born on September 16, 1925, in the Mississippi Delta area--a place which he called in his autobiography as "the most Southern place on earth." By some reports King was born in Indianola, Mississippi, and by others he was born in Itta Bena. The truth, according to King, is that he was born between Indianola and Greenwood, near Itta Bena, "[O]n the bank of Blue Lake." King, was named Riley by his father, Albert Lee King, in memory of a deceased brother. Although B.B. King had a younger brother, the sibling died in infancy, and King was raised as an only child. King's mother, Nora Ella, left his father when King was very young, and the two moved in with her family. While there, King was raised by three generations of kin: his great grandfather and great grandmother who were former slaves, his grandmother, and his mother. The family lived as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation. King learned as a youngster that music was a trademark of his ancestors and not simply a way to pass the hours of backbreaking cotton picking. On a southern plantation, music was an exclusive means of communication between the African American community, a language not totally understood by the white society.

King worked on the plantation from early boyhood. At age six he milked cows every morning and every night, and he attended the nearby one-room Elkhorn Schoolhouse in between chores. King's mother died when he was ten years old, and his grandmother died shortly thereafter, leaving King to fend for himself. He elected to live in solitude in the cabin he once shared with his mother, working for a tenant farmer. After five years on his own, King moved back to Indianola to live with his father and stepmother Aida Lee. While at his father's home King attended Ambrose Vocational High School, but he soon returned to the Mississippi Delta, to a cotton plantation where he lived with his aunt, uncle, and his cousin, fellow blues singer Bukka White. It was here that King's uncle introduced him to the guitar.

At age 14 King fell in love with a neighbor girl named Angel. The relationship ended tragically when Angel along with her entire family were killed in a terrible accident. Emotionally isolated once again, King, who bought his first guitar at age 12 only to have it stolen, bought another guitar and joined the Famous St. John Gospel Singers. He played music constantly as a means of expression, perhaps because of a speech impediment. Surprisingly, King found he could sing easily without stuttering.

The Indianola city life eventually beckoned King, and he laid claim to a street corner where he played his guitar and sang songs for the passers-by. Initially he sang gospel music, but he came to the realization that the simple modification of lyrics from "Lord" to "baby" transformed gospel songs into blues fare. He learned quickly that people on the street paid to hear blues songs, not gospel music.

In 1943--during World War II--the 18 year old King enlisted in the army. He was released after basic training because he drove a tractor, an essential civilian skill during wartime. When King grew increasingly frustrated with the tiresome life in Mississippi, he hitched a ride on a grocery truck to Memphis in 1947. Just 20 years old, he was awed and inspired by the big city. He left Memphis after a few months, but vowed to return one day as a blues singer after settling his accounts in Indianola.

Returned to Memphis

King returned to Memphis, and good fortune, in 1948. Almost immediately upon his arrival he found work singing on commercials at the African American radio station WDIA, where he would later become a disc jockey. His nights were spent performing at local clubs with his band, which included Solomon Hardy, Earl Forrest, Ford Nelson, and Johnny "Ace" Alexander. King's free time was spent on Beale Street. Industrious and healthy, he often picked cotton between radio shows and gigs. He made a recording for Bullet Records, and in time he was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, soon shortened to Blues Boy, then simply B.B.

King eventually purchased a Gibson electric guitar and an amplifier. He dubbed the guitar Lucille after a fateful performance at a dance in a Twist, Arkansas, barn in December of 1949. A fight broke out between two men over a woman named Lucille, during which a kerosene stove was knocked over, setting the barn aflame. King escaped the fire, but leaving his guitar behind, he risked his life entering the burning structure to salvage the instrument. Ever afterward he would call his guitars Lucille. While the original Lucille was stolen soon after the fire, King has played at least 17 Lucilles during the decades of his career. The guitar has become so synonymous with King that Gibson manufactured a Lucille model in his honor.

By now an up and coming blues man, King spent the early 1950s on the road. He played wherever blues fans gathered--clubs, roadhouses, and barns--sometimes sleeping in his car, in the hopes of building a reputation. In 1951, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips produced King's first single, "3 O'Clock Blues," which held the number one position on the Billboard R&B chart for several weeks. By 1952, his reputation had grown to the point where he was now performing at an elite circuit of clubs, including the Apollo Theater in Harlem. A few years later King teamed up with the successful producer and musical arranger Maxwell Davis, assembled a band, and purchased a bus called "Big Red." As the 1950s came to a close, however, blues music slowly lost its appeal with large audiences. The popular music of the times evolved from the simple southern music style proliferated by King, into a lively rock and roll beat with catchy lyrics. King's popularity waned, his style of music now characterized as "urban blues."

The Thrill Arrived

In 1961, King inked a recording contract with ABC Records. He released three albums for ABC, Mr. Blues in 1963, B.B. King Live at the Regal in 1965, and Confessin' the Blues in 1966, before company executives moved him to their Bluesway label. In 1969, King seemed to truly come into his own with the breakthrough album Completely Well. That album featured the single "The Thrill Is Gone", which would prove to be one of his biggest hits and launched King into the collective American musical conscience. Later that year, King released the successful Live and Well , which Downbeat 's James Powell called, "the most important blues recording in a long time."

King's career continued unabated during the 1970s as he managed to gain favor among young people and other musicians. Guitar Player magazine called him the world's best blues guitarist in 1970. He became a perennial entertainer on college campuses and emerged as an icon for many young musicians of that era, even touring for ten days with the Rolling Stones. King's influence on the blues and rock guitarists who followed him is inestimable. From the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards to blues man Albert King, who only half-jokingly claimed to be King's half-brother, his staccato picking style, bent notes, and numerous riffs have been borrowed copiously.

As for his own influences, King lists jazz legends Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, as well as blues men T-Bone Walker and Lonnie Johnson. His musical tastes, in fact, were even more varied. "I was crazy about the Hawaiian guitar, and I'm equally crazy about the country lap steel guitar," King told Musician in 1998. "And all those other guys who could use the bottleneck [slide], I loved that sound." Despite the wide diversity of musical influences, or perhaps because of it, King forged a sound and style that was unique.

Private Interests

King married for the first time at age 17, to Martha Lee of Europe, Mississippi. The marriage dissolved eight years later, from the strain of constant separation caused by King's musical career. He married Sue Hall in Detroit in 1958 at a wedding presided over by Reverend C. L. Franklin (father of singer Aretha Franklin). In 1966, that marriage also ended in divorce, for similar reasons. King sired no children from either marriage, yet in 1949, he fathered a son out of wedlock--the first of 15 children that he would father by 15 different women.

King's popularity and legendary status continued to grow with each passing year. His 70th Birthday Bash on October 27, 1995, at the Orpheum Theater was orchestrated as a benefit for children with sickle cell anemia. The four-hour celebration featured an array of popular entertainers and attracted a sellout audience. Such an extravagant affair might have seemed strange for the humble blues king, or maybe not. As he told Time in 1969, "Blues is what I do best. If Frank Sinatra can be tops in his field, Nat Cole in his, Bach and Beethoven in theirs, why can't I be great, and known for it, in blues?"

by Gloria Cooksey

B.B. King's Career

Started as a street musician in Memphis, TN; nicknamed "Blues Boy," and later, B.B., 1947-50; disc jockey for WDIA in Memphis, 1948-50; signed with ABC Records, 1961; released B.B. King Live at the Regal, 1965; Confessin' the Blues, 1966; other releases include, Blues on top of Blues, Bluesway, 1968; Completely Well (includes "The Thrill Is Gone"), Bluesway, 1969; B.B. King Live at the Appollo, GRP, 1991; There's Always One More Time, MCA, 1991; B.B.King--King of the Blues, MCA, 1992; (with others) Blues Summit, MCA, 1993; first overseas tour, 1972.

B.B. King's Awards

Jazz & Pop, Best Male Jazz Singer of the Year, 1968; French Academie du Jazz Award, Best Album of the Year (Lucille) 1969; Grammy Awards, 1970, 1981, 1983, 1987 (Lifetime Achievement), 1990-91, 1993; Ebony Blues Hall of Fame, 1974; NAACP Image Award, 1975, 1981, 1993; Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, 1980; W. C. Handy Award, 1983, 1985, 1987-88, 1991; Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee, 1987; MTV Video Music Award, Best Video from a Film, 1988/89; Songwriters' Hall of Fame, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1990; Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1991; Ebony awards, Best Male Blues Singer, Best Blues Instrumentalist, Best Blues Album, 1974-75; honorary doctorates: Tougaloo College, L.H.D., 1973; Yale University, Music, 1977; Berklee College of Music, 1982; Rhodes College, Fine Arts, 1990.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 9, 2003: King's album, Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: B.B. King, was released. Source: Yahoo! Shopping, shopping.yahoo.com/shop?d=product&id=1921995227, September 9, 2003.

October 2003: King was named one of the winners of the 2004 Polar Music Prize for his contributions to the blues; he is expected to travel to Sweden to collect his $130,887 prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf on May 24, 2004. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, October 16, 2003.

January 13, 2004: King's album, B. B. King, Vol. 4, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_5/index.jsp, January 21, 2004.

April 13, 2004: King's album, Blues in My Heart, was re-issued. Source: Billboard, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_3/index.jsp, April 16, 2004.

May 5, 2004: King was named to receive the 2004 Polar Music Prize, to be awarded by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. This honor includes a monetary prize of $130,887. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, May 5, 2004.

July 13, 2004: King's album, Anthology: Sound + Vision, was released with a digital video disc. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_2/index.jsp, August 5, 2004.

April 2005: The B. B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center announced plans to restore an Indianola, Mississippi, cotton mill as a museum of King memorabilia. King worked at the mill during his early career. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2005/04/11/arts/11arts.html?pagewanted=all, April 11, 2005.

September 13, 2005: King's album, 80, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_7/index.jsp, September 14, 2005.

February 8, 2006: King won the Grammy Award for best traditional blues album for 80. Source: Grammy.com, http://grammy.com/GRAMMY_Awards/Annual_Show/48_nominees.aspx, February 9, 2006.

Further Reading

Sources

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 7 years ago

Hi I returned a stolen 80th Birthday Lucille to Mr. King this year. The article is posted at this site on Guitar Center http://www.guitarcenterblog.com/ It's also available at Premier Guitar and Blue Guitars. Thanks Eric