Any man who has played over 15,000 gigs, in well over 60 years of touring, has the right to be called a legend. Yet B.B. King is a legend for so very much more. He’s sold countless records, is respected by musicians everywhere and was named the third greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, which puts an awful lot of others in the shade. He’s also much loved, earning himself the monikers of King Of The Blues and Ambassador Of The Blues. His death, in May 2015, gave us time to reflect on his odyssey. He’s been responsible for turning on more people to the power and the passion of the blues than just about anyone.
“My music is spiritual to me. I feel things when I’m playing that I never feel otherwise.” B.B. King
B.B.King, born deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, B.B. King began recording in the early 1950s in Memphis Tennessee and almost immediately began to connect with his audiences. He has always had a knack for connecting with people, whether from behind the microphone as a DJ on WDIA in Memphis or from the stage while playing his beloved Lucille. The perfect place to begin to understand what makes B.B. King so great is through the OST to the film The Life of Riley. It includes signature pieces, some of his earliest recordings including his debut, ‘Miss Martha King’, seminal songs like ‘Sweet Little Angel’ (supposedly about Etta James) and live cuts including ‘How Blue Can You Get’ from Live At the Regal – arguably the greatest live Blues recording ever.
The recent 10 cd box set Ladies and Gentleman, Mr B.B. King, is a fitting tribute to a man who has had the longest recording career of any Blues artist. It highlights the many and varied albums that B.B. has recorded over seven decades. With a career spent largely on the road, it is unsurprising that many of his best albums are in fact live recordings. Among the best are Live At Cook County Jail, from 1971 and Live in Japan – which despite being recorded the same years, offers a very different picture. Live at the Apollo released in 1990 is another classic recording.
Some decade by decade highlights include 1968’s Blues on Top Of Blues, Together For The First Time, his album with his old friend Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland from 1974, Blues ‘n’ Jazz from 1983 and Blues on the Bayou from 1998. If ever you doubted that B.B. King’s still got it check out 2008’s One Kind Favor he recorded with producer T-Bone Burnett – it’s how the Blues should be played.
“It angers me how scholars associate the blues strictly with tragedy. As a little kid, blues meant hope, excitement, pure emotion.“ B.B. King
Riley B. King is the son of Alfred and Nora Ella King and he was born in Indianola, deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta in 1925. He was named Riley after the Irishman who owned the plantation on which his parents lived and worked. “He was named Jim O’Riley; my dad and Mr O’Riley were such good friends, he named me after him, but he left the O off. When I got big enough to know about it, I asked my dad one day, ‘why is it that you named me after Mr O’Riley, why did you leave the O off?’ He said you didn’t look Irish enough!”
According to BB King, “Any time you’re born on a plantation you have no choice. Plantation first, that’s always first.” But it was not long before The Beale Street Blues Boy, as Riley B. King became known, sought to change all that. The sharecropper’s son first went to Memphis in 1946 and stayed with his cousin Bukka White, but soon returned to Indianola to work as a tractor driver.
Inspired by Sonny Boy Wiliamson’s radio show, young Riley moved back to Memphis in 1948. “I got to audition for Sonny Boy, it was one of the Ivory Joe Hunter songs called ‘Blues of Sunrise.’ Sonny Boy had been working out a little place called the 16th Street Grill down in West Memphis. So he asked the lady that he had been working for, her name was Miss Annie, ‘I’m going to send him down in my place tonight.’ My job was to play for the young people that didn’t gamble. The 16th Street Grill had a gambling place in the back if a guy came and brought his girlfriend or his wife that didn’t gamble my job was to keep them happy by playing music for them to dance. They seemed to enjoy me playing, so Miss Annie said if you can get a job on the radio like Sonny Boy, I’ll give you this job and I’ll pay you $12 and a half a night. And I’ll give you six days of work, room and board. Man, I couldn’t believe it.”
He began working on the radio station WDIA (pictured left). “When I was a disc jockey, they use to bill me as Blues Boy, the boy from Beale Street. People would write to me and instead of saying the Blues Boy, they’d just abbreviate it to B.B.” His popularity in Memphis earned him the chance to record for Bullet in 1949. His first sides were not too successful, but then Sam Phillips got B.B. into his Memphis Recording Services studio in September 1950. The Bahiri brothers visiting Memphis in search of talent signed B.B. to their RPM label and agreed to release the sides that he had cut with Phillips.
These records failed to catch hold and so Joe Bihari, the youngest brother, went to Memphis and recorded B.B. in a room at the YMCA on January 8th 1951. On a subsequent visit to Memphis, Bihari recorded B.B.’s version of Lowell Fulson’s ‘Three O’clock Blues’. It entered the chart on December 29th1951 and eventually spent 5 weeks at No.1 in early 1952. Not quite an overnight sensation, but it was the start of the most successful long-running career in modern Blues history.
In the early years of his success, he stayed in Memphis, where he was a big star – but not always as big as he thought he was. “We were in Memphis at the Auditorium, Elvis was there watching, and performing were; Bobby Bland, Little Milton, Little Junior Parker, Howlin’ Wolf and myself. Everybody had been on stage. Bobby Bland, a stage mover – man, he can move the people, Little Milton and myself, you know we do what we do, but we couldn’t move the crowd quickly like Bobby Bland. We had been on and now Howlin’ Wolf is up and the people are going crazy. Milton says, ‘something is going on out there’. Junior Parker says ‘let’s check it out’. So Wolf is doing ‘Spoonful’, now we go out there and he’s on his knees crawling around on the floor. The people just going crazy so finally, we figured out what it was; the seat of his pants was busted! And all of his business is hanging out!”
One night while BB was playing at a club in Twist Arkansas, there was a fight and a stove was knocked over which set fire to the wooden building. The band and audience had rushed outside before King realised that he had left his beloved $30 guitar inside; rushing back into the burning building he managed to get his guitar, even though he almost died in the process. It turned out the fight was over a woman named Lucille, which is how BB’s guitar got its name; every one of the 20 or so custom made Gibson guitars that have all been called ‘Lucille’.
Throughout the time King recorded for RPM, he churned out hit after hit. Topping the R&B chart three more times, until he left RPM for Kent in late 1958. Kings sojourn at Kent lasted throughout much of the 60s and whilst he never again topped the R&B charts, he had many hits. His sweet gospel-tinged voice, coupled with his brilliant single-string picking, proved an irresistible combination. It made King one of THE most successful artists on the R&B charts for all time.
By the late 1960s, B.B., like his fellow blues guitar players, was discovered by the young white rock fraternity, which gave his career a real boost. In 1970 ‘The Thrill is Gone’ made No.3 on the R&B chart, it also crossed over to the Hot 100 and became his biggest hit when it made No.15. In 1969 he visited Europe for the first of many visits; audiences, well aware of the legend’s influence on Eric Clapton, Peter Green et al, readily accepted him. King’s album Live at the Regal, recorded in 1964, had long been held in high esteem by both musicians and fans alike, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Much of B.B.’s success can be attributed to his live shows. He has always been one of the hardest working live performers, playing 250 â€“ 300 dates a year, even in some of the lean years. He also had a knack for keeping his bands together, an indication of his skill as a bandleader, but probably a lot to do with his gracious nature as a boss.
In 1969, B.B toured America with the Rolling Stones, which for many would have been the first time they had seen one of the all-time greats in the flesh. According to Bill Wyman, “We used to go on the side stage and watch B.B. play. He had a 12-piece band and they were brilliant musicians. The thing that always stunned me about his playing, was the way he hammered it out and then he’d just go down to a whisper. There was just silence in the place, you could hear a pin drop. He would suddenly start to build it to a big climax, that’s what I liked about his playing, the dimensions of his music.”
Throughout the 1970s, when many others found it difficult to find decent work, King was always there or thereabouts. He even appeared on TV, when almost no other blues artists could get a look in. His reputation with other guitarists gave him the position of elder statesman of the Blues. Added to which, he has always been articulate in explaining the meaning of the blues and in so doing, he helped keep the fire burning when it had all but gone out. There has been criticism of King as being too smooth for the blues; sour grapes from those would have given anything to achieve a modicum of his success.
In 1988, the year after he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, King worked with U2 on their album Rattle & Hum. His performance on ‘When Love Comes to Town’, proved he still had it, even at 63 years old. This was not the first time King played with others, in the 70s he played with the jazz group, The Crusaders, others he has worked with have included the blind singer Diane Schuur, Alexis Korner, Stevie Winwood and Bobby Bland. In 2001 B.B. King and Eric Clapton won a Grammy award, the two long-time friends recorded the album, Riding With The King.
BB King like many of his contemporaries was inspired by Louis Jordan to believe that a black musician could achieve great things and for many years BB spoke of wanting to record an album of the legendary bandleader’s material. In 1999 he released that album, which both acknowledges his debt to Louis and celebrates the ‘King of the Jukeboxes’ string of great hit records. The album’s title appropriately is ‘Let the Good Times Roll’. It’s the song that BB King has used to open his live shows for decades.
King’s great skill was to ride out the mood swings of modern music and continue to come up with interesting albums. He brought the blues out of the margins and into the mainstream of American music. he, above all others, is the undisputed King Of The Blues. His sad but peaceful passing, on 14 May 2015, lost the world a true gentleman. The thrill is gone but the King legacy remains strong.