B.B. King is the most legendary blues musician still performing today, and perhaps of all time. He was born September 16, 1925 and has been wowing audiences since he first began playing his style of Electric blues in 1948. He has truly earned his nickname: The King of the Blues.
Blues Musician Bios: BB King
Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925 in a small cabin on a cotton plantation just outside of Berclair, Mississippi. His father left the family when he was four, leaving B.B. to be brought up by his maternal grandmother as his mother was too poor to raise him.
His young life was shaped by the local church, Elkhorn Baptist Church, where he sang in the choir. Blues and gospel frequently crossover in the history of the genres and this time was influential on the development of the young King.
There are two stories on how B.B. got his first guitar. One is that he purchased it at the age of 12 for $15. Another source is that noted blues musician, and his mother’s first cousin, Bukka White gave him one. Either way, by 1943 King was ready to leave home and play guitar with the Famous St. John’s Quartet in Inverness, Mississippi.
This is also around the time that he gained the moniker ‘B.B.’ He was working around West Memphis, Arkansas, playing music on WDIA as a disc jockey with the nicknames ‘Beale Street Blues Boy, then ‘Blues Boy’ and finally B.B.
B.B. King’s first recordings
B.B. first recorded an unsuccessful debut album on Bullet Records, a label out of Nashville. Soon after this failed recording session, B.B. began recording with LA based RPM Records in 1949. His frequent producer was Sun Records founder Sam Philips. If anyone can make a musician famous it is Sam Philips, B.B. soon found himself touring across the USA with shows in:
- Washington, D.C.
- Los Angeles
It was during the tour for these recordings that B.B. came to first name his Gibson hollowbody electric guitar ‘Lucille.’ B.B. was playing a winter show in Twist, Arkansas where the venue was being heated by a kerosene filled barrel.
A fight broke out between two men and the barrel was knocked over, causing a fire and an evacuation. Once outside, B.B. realized he had left his guitar inside and ran back into the flames to retrieve it. Kind named the guitar, and every guitar since, Lucille when he found out the two men were fighting over a woman of the same name – it serves as reminder to never do something as stupid as risk his life for a guitar again!
B.B. King becomes the King
King saw his star rise all through the 1950’s as he became the biggest name in blues and R&B. To give you an idea of how popular he was: 1956 saw him make 342 appearances while recording 3 separate times!
It wasn’t until 1970 that the recording industry finally acknowledged his greatest by giving him a Grammy for a song he covered known as “The Thrill is Gone.” The song is still well loved today as artists continue to put their own spin on the iconic tune – I’ve even been known to play it from time to time, just without the soul and skill of ‘The King of the Blues.’