Born September 16, 1925 in Itta Bena, Mississippi
Internationally renowned King of the Blues,
one of the last of the Mississippi Delta Bluesmen
On September 16, 1925, between the small towns of Itta Bena and Berclair in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, a blues king was born. Born to parents Nora Ella and Albert, Riley B. King, better known as B.B. King, would gain undisputed recognition as one of most renowned electric blues guitarists of all time. King has not only produced many hit recordings and earned numerous accolades and awards, he has also remained one of the most prolific and active blues entertainers in the world, releasing over seventy albums and maintaining an astonishing touring routine that has included an average of two to three hundred shows per year for the past five decades. No one could have predicted that King, an introverted and quiet child who was self-conscious about his stutter, would work his way up through deejay positions on the radio, live performances and studio-recordings to become on of the most articulate and eloquent spokespersons for the blues.
King was born on a cotton plantation where both of his parents were hardworking sharecroppers. His parents named him after his uncle Riley (his father’s only living relative) and also after a kind and fair-minded plantation owner, Jim O’Reilly. When he was only four years old, his mother left Albert and took King to live with his grandmother in Kilmicheal, in the east hills of the Mississippi Delta. For the next several years King lived with his mother and grandmother (sometimes one or the other, sometimes both). In Kilmicheal, King also began attending what he calls “a sanctified church,” or the Church of God in Christ. It was there that King found his first musical inspiration. The preacher, Archie Fair, led the lively and musical services and often accompanied the choir on his guitar. It was from Archie Fair that King first learned to play the basic one, four and five chords. In 1935, King’s mother, only around twenty-five years of age, passed away. Although King continued to live with his grandmother for the next several years, he describes this period as a time when he felt plunged into darkness and terribly alone. On January 15, 1940, King’s grandmother, Elnora Farr also passed away. For the next year, King lived alone, farmed a plot of land and performed household chores on the Flake Cartledge plantation. When King was twelve years old he purchased his first guitar with a $15 dollar advance from Cartledge and began learning to play the guitar.
Almost a year after his grandmother died, without notice or warning, King’s father arrived in Kilmicheal and took King to live with him in Lexington, MS. King remained there for two years before he moved back to Kilmicheal to continue attending Elkhorn School and singing with his gospel group. In 1943, King moved to Indianola where he found work on the Johnson Barrett plantation, sharecropping and driving a tractor for $1.00 per day. In Indianola, King also formed a new gospel group, The Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers. The group performed mostly at churches, and would even get airtime doing live performances on WGRM in Greenwood, Mississippi. Additionally, King found that he could play blues on the street corners to earn extra money; an observation that created an increasing rift between King and the rest of the group.
In 1944, King registered with the selective services and was sent to Camp Shelby for boot camp. It was during this time that King had some of his most painful observations about the depths of racism in American society. For example, on his train ride back to Indianola from Camp Shelby, King noticed that the German prisoners sat with the white passengers while the black soldiers were seated in separate cars. If there was an overflow of passengers and blacks and whites had to be seated together, a partition was erected to keep the black passengers from view. King explains that even his discharge from the Service, which many have cited as due to King being “physically unfit” for service, was in actuality due to an agreement between the Selective Services and the plantation owners that any enlistees who were considered vital to the plantation economy would be discharged.
Upon returning to Indianola, King married his first wife, Martha Denton (to whom he remained married for eight years). He also tried to persuade the members of The Famous St. John’s that they needed to leave Mississippi if they were ever going to become truly “famous.” The band resisted. For King, however, opportunity finally met desire one night in May of 1946. When King returned from the field this particular night, he placed the tractor in park and jumped out. However, the tractor backfired and smashed into the barn, causing severe damage to the tractor. Instead of facing an angry Johnson Barrett, the tractor’s owner, King grabbed his guitar and $2.50 and headed for Memphis in search of his cousin, bluesman Bukka White. King spent several months in Memphis observing the blues scene and working in a factory with his cousin before he returned home and paid off his debt to Johnson Barrett. King remained in Indianola for only a short while before he again headed to Memphis, but on his second sojourn, he was determined to find success.
King’s first stop in Memphis was at KWEM to see Sonny Boy Williamson. King asked Williamson if he could sing a song on his show, and Williamson had King perform live on the radio right then and there. The station received a number of calls from listeners saying that they liked the song, so Sonny Boy asked King to fill-in for him playing a live show at the 16th Street Grill that evening. King played that evening and the next day he visited WDIA (a new black-staffed, black-managed radio station) and told Nat Williams, the WDIA deejay, that he wanted to “go on the radio and make a record.” Williams introduced him to Mr. Ferguson who asked him if he could make a jingle for a new cure-all tonic, Pepticon. Without any further notice, King took his guitar and sang, “Pepticon sure is good…Pepticon sure is good…and you can get it anywhere in your neighborhood.” He got a deejay job at WDIA and within a few months had his own show, the “Sepia Swing Club.”
It was also during this time that the name B.B. King was coined. After arriving in Memphis, King had begun going by the name Beale Street Blues Boy, which was then shorten to Blues Boy and eventually just B.B. Hence, King is now known to most of the world as B.B. King. About the same time, King also introduced a new name into his repertoire, Lucille. As is well-known, King calls each of his guitars by the name Lucille, but that moniker originated after King rescued his $30 guitar from a barroom fire. King was playing a show in the winter of 1949 in Twist, Arkansas. On this particularly cold night, the club owner left a garbage pail of kerosene on the floor for heating the club. A fight broke out between two men and the kerosene spilled over and caught the entire club on fire. Everyone, including King, ran out of the club, but moments later King realized he had left his guitar in the club. He ran back into the burning building to retrieve his electric guitar. When he got back outside he heard that the fight had broken out over a woman named Lucille. Since that day, King has named each of his guitars “Lucille,” if only to remind himself “never to do anything that foolish again.”
In 1952 King released his seventh single, “Three O’Clock Blues,” which hit number one on Billboard’s R & B chart. After the success of this single, King, although still playing the chitlin circuit, began getting national bookings at places like the Howard Theater and the Apollo. In 1958, King also married his second wife, Sue Hall (to whom he remained married until their divorce in 1966). King continued playing local and national clubs throughout the fifties, and in 1956 King performed an amazing 342 shows. Nevertheless, fortune and fame eluded him. Gambling, troubles with the IRS and a horrible and costly accident involving his tour bus and resulting in the death of two people left King in dire financial difficulty.
While King continued to hone his musical skills, and some critics say he produced some of his best music throughout the 1950s and 1960s (“Sweet Sixteen” for example), he was unable to break into the mainstream market. After two decades of feeling outside of the rock and roll craze of the 1950s and not fully embraced by the soul movement of the 1960s, King moved from Biharis to ABC-Paramount Record and hired manager Sidney Seidenberg. These changes, along with the heightened attention to the blues from white blues scholars and fans and the incorporation of blues into modern rock by many of the British blues bands, created an opening through which King could finally reach a mass audience. In 1970, King’s recording of “The Thrill is Gone,” hit number 15 on Billboard’s Pop chart and earned King his first Grammy for “Best Vocal Performance.” King followed up that success with television appearances on The Tonight Show and the Ed Sullivan show. He began touring the major national and international theaters, and in 1969 he opened the 18 American concerts for the Rolling Stones. In the early 1970s, King also toured Ghana, Lagos, Chad and Liberia under the auspices of the US State Department. In 1989, appearing as the special guest of U2, King toured Australia, New Zealand, Japan, France, West Germany, Holland and Ireland. In 1996, King released the CD ROM, On the Road with B.B. King: An Interactive Biography and that same year published his autobiography, Blues All Around Me. In 2000, King released Riding with the King, a collaboration with Eric Clapton and most recently has been featured in Antoine Fuqua’s Lightning in a Bottle (released in theaters in 2004).
In the later part of his career, King has been showered with awards and accolades, among the most notable, thirteen Grammy Awards, as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame, five honorary doctorate degrees, and in 1995 he received Kennedy Center Honors. Since being diagnosed with diabetes in 1990, King has had to devote more attention to monitoring his diet and overall health routine and has had to trim his touring schedule down to about 200 shows per year. Nevertheless, King remains a tireless performer of his unique style of the blues and a powerful advocate for recognizing the distinguished place which the blues hold in African American culture and history. King has 15 children (adopted and biological): Shirley Ann, Patty, Ruby, Rita, Michele, Claudette, Riletta, Karen, Big Barbara, Little Barbara, Gloria, Robert, Willie, Leonard and Riley, Jr.
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