B. B. King may be the preeminent blues player of all time. He has been recording for over 50 years, and though he has recorded with large bands and small, with smooth strings and with raw gutbucket accompaniment, his guitar-style has remained consistent and immediately identifiable. He is a musician extraordinaire, but has also proven himself a remarkable bandleader, businessman, and a stellar ambassador of goodwill, representing the best of everything the blues stands for.
He was raised poor in Mississippi, a family abandoned by his father, moving from farm to farm until his mother died. As a young teen, he found refuge working land for the Cartledges, a kind white family in Kilmichael, Mississippi. There, he received steady pay, shelter, and schooling—and also purchased his first guitar. In his late teens, he moved from the hill country to the delta, working as a tractor driver near Indianola and playing music for friends on Saturday nights. By the time he settled in Memphis, he’d toured some of the delta with a gospel quartet and had mastered the street crowds with his blues.
From early on, B. B. understood that succeeding in music required more than just outstanding musicianship. Upon his arrival in Memphis, he quickly landed a radio job, enabling him to reach a wider audience and to draw more of them to his gigs. His radio moniker was “The Beale Street Blues Boy,” which ultimately was shortened to B. B. He regularly competed in the amateur night at Beale Street’s Palace Theater, his consistent wins spreading his reputation.
Soon, Beale Street club-owner Sunbeam Mitchell placed King in front of his popular house band, and young B. B. was leading a large group that included a stellar horn section. He cut a few records, including some for Sam Phillips, but it was his 1952 recording of “3 O’ Clock Blues” that launched B. B.’s career. The song spent 5 weeks at #1 on the R&B charts, and from that day to this one, B. B. has toured.
B. B. plays a “single-string” style, meaning he features note after note as opposed to lots of chording. Single-string evokes the human voice, and since the 1950s, his guitar—he’s named each one Lucille—has sung on all his hits. B. B.’s success widely disseminated the single-string style; he picked it up from Aaron “T-Bone” Walker, who learned it from Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Initially, B. B. established his audience among African-Americans. His constant touring and steady release of records kept him in demand. His 1965 album Live At The Regal is regarded as one of the greatest blues albums ever. As black music evolved into soul music in the 1960s, the blues fell out of favor among black audiences. At the same time, however, a white audience, influenced by the roots explorations of the British Invasion, was beginning to discover the blues.
In 1967, B. B. played San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. The venue had once been a premier “chitlin-circuit” stop and when he saw the line of white hippies waiting to get in, he thought his bus driver was at the wrong place. Somewhat confused, he took the stage and, before he could play, the white audience rose and applauded his entrance. “I stood there and started crying,” B. B. recalled.
I had about three or four standing ovations. And when I got ready to leave, they stood up again. That was the beginning of playing to a different crowd of people.
Another milestone in B. B.’s career was the release of “The Thrill Is Gone.” Already one of B. B.’s smoothest recordings, the producer added a string arrangement, giving it widespread appeal. It was released in late 1969, just after the Rolling Stones had featured B. B. as their tour’s opening act, deepening his reach into the new audience.
“The Thrill Is Gone” became a chart hit and earned B. B. a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. He’d become a blues star, a rock star, and now, simply, a star.
Through the 1970s, B. B. toured the world, playing some of the largest venues in the USA and other countries, expanding his audience, including winning back a sizable portion of African-American fans. His tours co-headlining with Bobby “Blue” Bland led to two very successful live albums. His studio recordings continued to mix his deeply-emotional playing with string and horn arrangements, satisfying both the pop audience and fans of harder blues. Usually, he was on the road performing
A chance meeting in the late 1980s led to a collaboration with the pop/rock band U2. He joined them on their album Rattle and Hum, recorded at his old stomping ground, Sun Studio. While his presence lent the Irish rockers a certain authenticity, they introduced him to another generation.
B.B. has collaborated with all manner of other artists, including albums like Blues Summit, where he’s joined by John Lee Hooker, Etta James, and about ten other leading blues stars; Lucille & Friends, with Stevie Wonder, Ringo Starr, Branford Marsalis, and a range of others; and Deuces Wild, featuring the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and Marty Stuart. Riding With The King is an album shared by B. B. and Eric Clapton.
He has also appeared on Sesame Street, Sanford & Son, The Cosby Show, and several soap operas. He has had audiences with presidents of the United States, the Pope, and other world leaders. His awards are too numerous to mention, from music, educational, and social groups. He is involved in a string of blues clubs, a line of Gibson guitars, a satellite radio station, and other enteprises.
Despite all his success, B. B. has never forgotten his roots. Since 1973, he has participated in an annual homecoming concert in his adopted hometown of Indianola, playing a free concert and helping improve conditions for its citizens. The B. B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center opened there in 2008, setting his story in the context of the region. All who know or meet B. B. speak of the giant star’s ongoing drive to educate himself, the hallmark of both his humility and his humanity.