Riley B. “B.B.” King was a famous American blues singer, guitarist, songwriter, and producer who ranked No. 6 in Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest guitarists of all time. His unique style in playing the guitar had been a great influence to many electric blues guitarists. In 1987, he had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He became known as “The King of the Blues” and one of the “Three Kings of the Blues Guitar.” His career in music had been a long one, persisting until he reached his 70s.
LIFE AND MUSIC OF B.B. KING
Riley B. King was born to sharecroppers Albert and Nora Ella King in Itta Bena, Mississippi. His parents split up when he was just four years old and he was left to be raised by his grandmother, Elnora Farr, I Kilmichael, Mississippi. He married Martha Lee Denton (1946-1952) and Sue Carol Hall (1958-1966) but both marriages failed. He was purported to have at least 15 children to various women.
His musical life started when he became a member of a gospel choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kilmichael. The local minister taught him the first three cords of the guitar. At the age of 12, he was able to acquire his very own guitar. Upon hearing “King Biscuit Time” in 1941, King decided that he wanted to become a radio musician. He resigned from his work in the plantation and joined the Famous St. John’s Quartet as a guitarist. His work with the group let him play in various churches in Mississippi. A performance on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on KWEM paved the way for King’s initial success in music. He eventually earned a 10-minute spot on the Memphis radio station WDIA. Due to increasing popularity, it was later renamed as the Sepia Swing Club. It was in this program that he became known as “Beale Street Blues Boy,” “Blue Boy,” and eventually the more popular “B.B.”
King’s first single was “Miss Martha King” produced by Bullet Records. In 1949, he started his sessions with RPM Records. He then proceeded to establishing his own band, B.B. King Review. Afterwards, he did tours in various states like Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, and St. Louis.
King’s first number one hit in Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart was “3 O’Clock Blues.” After that, he became more famous during the 1950s with a number of hit songs such as “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”. With his earnings, he was able to establish his own record label, Blues Boys Kingdom in Beale Street, Memphis. Some of the artists that he produced were Millard Lee and Levi Seabury.
In addition to his own tour, King also played with various musicians like Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, U2, Dr. John, Koko Taylor and Bo Diddley. He had also received several awards like the international Polar Music Prize and Grammy Award for his song “The Thrill is Gone.” His tours and musical appearance pushed throughout the 1980s until his death in 2015. He also had a “farewell” world tour even though he continued playing in front of an audience afterwards.
In 2014, King had to cancel his remaining shows because of his deteriorating health. It was just less than a year when he had to be hospitalized due to the complications brought about by his high blood pressure and diabetes. On May 14, 2015, he died a natural death at the age of 89.
Even in his death, King was revered by a lot of people. Thousands had come to pay their respects when he was laid to rest in Indianola, Mississippi.