B.B. King Biography

Riley B. King, 16 September 1925, Indianola, Mississippi, USA. The son of a sharecropper, King went to work on the plantation like any other young black in Mississippi, but he had sung in amateur gospel groups from childhood. By the age of 16, he was also playing blues guitar and singing on street corners. When he was 20 years old, he temporarily quit sharecropping and went to Memphis, where he busked, and shared a room for almost a year with his second cousin, Bukka White. However, it was not until 1948 that he managed to pay off his debts to his former plantation boss. After leaving farming, he returned to Memphis, determined to become a star. He secured work with radio station KWEM, and then with WDIA, fronting a show sponsored by the health-tonic Pepticon, which led to disc jockeying on the Sepia Swing Show. Here he was billed as ‘The Beale Street Blues Boy’, later amended to ‘Blues Boy King’, and then to ‘B.B. King’. Radio exposure promoted King’s live career, and he performed with a band (the Beale Streeters) whose personnel varied according to availability. At this stage, he was still musically untutored, and liable to play against his backing musicians, but it was evident from his first recordings made for Bullet Records in 1949, that his talent was striking.

The Bullet recordings brought King to the attention of Modern Records, with whom he recorded for the next 10 years. As he began to tour beyond the area around Memphis, his first marriage, already under strain, ended in divorce in 1952. By that time, he was a national figure, having held the number 1 spot in the Billboard R&B chart for 15 weeks with ‘Three O’Clock Blues’. He had embarked on the gruelling trail of one-nighters that has continued ever since. Through the 50s, King toured with a 13-piece band, adopting a patriarchal attitude to his musicians that has been compared to that of a kindly plantation boss. Briefly, he operated his own Blues Boy’s Kingdom label, but had no success. Modern, however, were steadily producing hits for him, although their approach to copyright-standard practice in its day was less ethical, with the label owners taking fictitious credit on many titles. B.B. King’s blues singing was heavily mellifluent, influenced by Peter J. Clayton and gospel singer Sam McCrary of the Fairfield Four.

However, King’s true revolutionary importance was as an electric guitarist. He admired Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt as well as Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and also saxophonist Lester Young. He derived ideas about phrasing and harmony from all these musicians. His extensive use of sixths clearly derived from jazz. His sound, however, consisted chiefly of a synthesis of the bottleneck styles of the delta blues (including that of Bukka White) with the jazzy electric guitar of T-Bone Walker. To Walker’s flowing, crackling music, King added finger vibrato, his own substitute for the slide, which he had never managed to master. The result was a fluid guitar sound, in which almost every note was bent and/or sustained. This, together with King’s penchant for playing off the beat, gave his solos the pattern of speech, and the personification of his beautiful black, gold plated, pearl inlaid Gibson 335 (or 355) guitar as ‘Lucille’ seemed highly appropriate.

In 1960, King switched labels, moving to ABC Records in the hope of emulating Ray Charles’ success. The times were against him, however, for black tastes were moving towards soul music and spectacular stage presentation. King had always felt a need to make the blues respectable, removing sexual boasting and references to violence and drugs. As a result of these endeavours his lyrics were, ironically, closer to those of soul, with their emphasis on love, respect and security in relationships. He remained popular, as his interplay with the audience on a live album recorded in Chicago in 1964 illustrates, but by the mid-60s, his career seemed in decline, with the hits coming from Modern’s back catalogue rather than his new company. Revitalization came with the discovery of the blues by young whites - initially musicians, and then the wider audience. In 1968, King played the Fillmore West with Johnny Winter and Mike Bloomfield, who introduced him as ‘the greatest living blues guitarist’, provoking a standing ovation before he had even played a note. His revival of Roy Hawkins’ ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, which made innovatory use of strings, provided the crucial pop crossover. Consequently, in 1969, King paid his first visit to Europe, where the way had been prepared by Eric Clapton (and where an ignorant reviewer called him an ‘up-and-coming guitarist of the Clapton- Peter Green school’).

In 1970, King recorded his first collaboration with rock musicians, produced by Leon Russell, who played on and composed some numbers, as did Carole King. King’s career has been smooth sailing ever since, and he has been in demand for commercials, movie soundtracks, television show theme tunes, and guest appearances (e.g., with U2 on 1989’s ‘When Love Comes To Town’). His workaholic schedule probably results, in part, from a need to finance his compulsive gambling, but he has also worked unobtrusively to provide entertainment for prisoners (co-founding the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation in 1972).

King’s professional life is marked by a sense of mission, coupled with a desire to give the blues status and acceptability. This he has achieved, bringing the blues into the mainstream of entertainment, although he has done so by removing much of the sense of otherness that first brought many whites to it. Sometimes his live performances can be disappointingly bland, with sing along segments and misplaced attempts to ingratiate, as when he proudly told a Scottish audience of his meeting with Sheena Easton. His recordings since the 70s have been of inconsistent quality.

King has deliberately kept in touch with his roots, returning to Mississippi each year to play, but the adulation of rock musicians has been a mixed blessing. Recordings made in London with, among others, Alexis Korner, Steve Winwood and Ringo Starr proved particularly disappointing. Equally, his collaboration with jazz-funk band the Crusaders, who produced and played on two albums, stifled his invention, and it has often seemed that King’s creativity has run into the sands of MOR pop in a 12-bar format. These are the times when he is most likely to return with a brilliant, vital album that goes back to his roots in jazz, jump and the Delta. At the end of 1995 King announced that, as he had turned 70 years of age, he would be drastically reducing his performing schedule which he had maintained for many decades. Instead of a regular 300 or more gigs a year, he would be winding down in his old age, to a modest 200!

B.B. King has achieved the blues singer’s dream - to live in Las Vegas and to have full access to the material benefits that the American way of life still withholds from so many black Americans. Without a doubt, though, things have changed for him; the teenager playing in the 40s streets became a man with whom the chairman of the Republican Party in the 80s considered it an honour to play guitar. B.B. King was a great influence on the sound of the blues, the sincerity of his singing and the fluency of his guitar spawning a flock of imitators as well as having a more general effect on the music’s development, as reflected in the playing of Buddy Guy, his namesakes Freddie King and Albert King, ‘Little’ Joe Blue and innumerable others. Arguably, his most far-reaching effect has been on rock music. Concerns over his health were unfounded in the late 90s, and although he now has to sit down through most of his concerts he still has a rapport with his audience that few artists have achieved. Between 1999 and 2000 he released three albums including Let The Good Times Roll, an excellent tribute to Louis Jordan, and Riding With The King, a collaboration with Eric Clapton. King’s limitations include an inability to play guitar behind his own singing. This has led him to make a strict demarcation between the two, and has encouraged rock guitarists to regard extended solos as the mark of authentic blues playing. In lesser hands, this has all too easily become bloated excess or meaningless note spinning.

B.B. King has always aspired to elegance, logic and purpose in his guitar playing; it is ironic that his success has spawned so many imitators possessing so little of those very qualities. His career, like that of other black musicians in America, has been circumscribed by the dictates of the industry. Like Louis Armstrong, he has nevertheless achieved great art through a combination of prodigious technical gifts and the placing of his instinctive improvisatory skills at the service of emotional expression. Also like Armstrong, he has stayed firmly within the compass of showbusiness, attempting to give the public what he perceives it to want. Despite being in his 80s, he is still an imposing figure who commands respect, his vocal chords are as sharp as ever and he now wallows in the genuine love and affection he receives from his audience and fellow musicians. His greatest songs, however, testify to his standing as a giant of the blues and R&B and a titanic figure in popular music over the last half-century.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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