A true blues guitar legend, BB King was a prolific American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Born on 16th September 1925 King was probably and possibly still the most famous of all blues guitarists. The sweet, clean, string bending tremolo and single note solos that he projected from his Gibson ES-335 variant which he named ‘Lucille’, is in my opinion one of the greatest sounds around when it comes to the blues and blues guitar.
BB King was ranked No. 6 by Rolling Stone magazine's in its 2011 list of 'the 100 greatest guitarists of all time'. He was the first to play the very clean, precise almost sophisticated style of blues soloing centred around a flowing string bending technique that was enhanced with a shimmering vibrato. This style was to influence many electric blues guitar players that followed.
King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and is considered to be one of the most influential blues musicians of all time.
BB King in New York in the late 1980's
The fact that he is nicknamed "The King of the Blues" is no light hearted gesture. Indeed, he was a truly great performer and a wonderful blues guitarist.
Known for his extremely active musical career, on average BB King performed in over 200 live concerts per year past his 70th birthday?! In 1956 alone, he reportedly appeared at 342 live shows!
Unfortunately, BB King died on 14th May 2015 aged 89 in Las Vegas, Nevada, but he left a legacy of blues music behind him. So let’s take a look now at the life of a true blues guitar legend.
His true name was Riley B. King. Riley B. King was born in a cabin on a cotton plantation called Berclair which was in Mississippi near the town of Itta Bena. His Father’s name was Albert King and his Mother was called Ella King. When he was only 4 years old, the young Riley King’s mother left his father for another man. He was then raised by Elnora Farr who was his maternal grandmother in the town of Kilmichael which was also in Mississippi. BB always considered the nearby city of Indianola to be his home though.
The young Riley King sang in the gospel choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church in his hometown of Kilmichael. He was drawn to the Pentecostal church because the local minister there led the service with a Sears Roebuck Silvertone guitar. The young Riley King learned his first three guitar chords from the minister. How King received his first guitar is uncertain as one story suggests he purchased his first guitar for $15.00 when twelve years old. Another story suggests that he was given his first guitar by his mother's first cousin.
In November 1941 a radio show called “King Biscuit Time“, featured the Mississippi Delta blues. The young self-taught guitarist Riley King listened to it while on break at a plantation and decided that he wanted to become a radio musician.
King left Kilmichael in 1943 to work as a tractor driver and to play guitar with the Famous St. John's Quartet who was based in Inverness, Mississippi where they performed at churches and on WRGM in Greenwood Mississippi.
The young Riley B King followed a well-known Delta blues man called Bukka White to Memphis, Tennessee in 1946. Booker T. Washington ('Bukka' White) Bukka was born on 12th November 1909 and became a Delta blues guitarist and singer. He died on 26th February 1977.
'Bukka' White let Riley King stay with him for ten months before King decided to return to Mississippi. Riley B King decided to prepare himself better for his next visit which was to be in West Memphis, Arkansas 1948 where he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program. King started to attract an audience and a regular following with his appearances leading to steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis. King later secured a regular ten-minute spot on WDIA, a radio station based in Memphis Tennessee which soon became the first radio station in America programmed entirely for African Americans and featured black radio personalities. The radio spot later became known as the Sepia Swing Club due to its great popularity with the listeners.
At first, Riley B King worked at WDIA as a singer and disc jockey where he acquired the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy" This was then shortened to "Blues Boy" and finally to “B.B”. Beale Street runs from the Mississippi River to East Street and is a well-known location today in the history of the blues. Sure enough, the blues clubs and restaurants down Beale Street are major tourist attractions in Memphis.
It was at WDIA where BB King first met T-Bone Walker, a well-known but often criticised black American blues guitarist, songwriter and singer who could play a variety of instruments such as the ukulele, banjo, violin, mandolin and even the piano.
T-Bone Walker was an influential pioneer of the electric blues guitar sound and jump blues style that incorporated a quicker tempo and featured brass instruments such as the saxophone. 'Jump Blues is today recognised as a precursor of rhythm and blues and rock and roll music.
In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine ranked T-Bone Walker at number 67 on their list of "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".
BB once said of T-Bone Walker, "Once I'd heard him for the first time, I knew I'd have to have an electric guitar myself. I just had to have one, short of stealing!"Back To Top
King started a recording contract in 1949 with RPM Records in Los Angeles. The majority of King's early recordings with RPM were produced by a guy called Sam Phillips (Samuel Cornelius Phillips - January 5, 1923 – July 30th 2003), who later went on to start Sun Records in 1952 which discovered and recorded great artists such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
Before his RPM contract however, King had his first single entitled “Miss Martha King” released on Bullet Records in 1949 but it didn’t do so well in the charts though.
He formed his own band and called them the BB King Review with which he played his famous guitar called Lucille. Initially, the band consisted of Calvin Owens and Kenneth Sands on trumpet, Lawrence Burdin on alto sax, George Coleman on tenor sax, Floyd Newman on baritone sax, Millard Lee on piano, George Joyner on bass and Earl Forest and Ted Curry on drums. BB openly admitted that he couldn’t play chords very well and therefore relied on single note improvisation. Onzie Horne however was a trained musician who was brought in as an arranger to help BB King with his original compositions.
After landing his recording contract, BB toured across America making appearances in major cities such as Washington, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles. He also played a number of smaller gigs in small clubs and Juke Joints in the South. It was at one of these smaller gigs in a small town called Twist in Arkansas that a fight broke out between two men. The fight caused a fire as the hall was heated by a barrel half-filled with burning kerosene which was common practice at that time. The fight caused the burning barrel to be knocked over which sent burning fuel across the floor.
BB and everyone else was forced to evacuate the building. BB King had left his guitar inside the building though and went back for it. After the fire had stopped he found out that two men had died in the fire and the two men that were brawling were fighting over a woman called Lucille. BB King then named his guitar ‘Lucille’ as a reminder to never fight over women, and to never run into any more burning buildings.
In the 1950’s BB King became one of the most famous and influential names in R&B music after his first number one hit on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues Chart entitled “3 O’clock blues” in February 1952 ". In the 1950’s he accumulated a wealth of hits such as "You Know I Love You", "Please Love me", "when my heart beats like a hammer", "Woke up This Morning", "Whole Lotta Love", "You Upset Me Baby", "Sneakin' Around", "Ten Long Years", "Bad Luck", "On My Word of Honor", and "Please Accept My Love". As a result his income increased significantly from around $85 to $2,500 per week!
During this time BB performed at major venues such as the Howard ring Theatre in Washington and the Apollo in New York and also toured the entire "Chitlin circuit", the name given to all of the venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper mid-west areas of the United States that were known to be safe and acceptable for black American musicians and other performers in the times of racial segregation in the USA. This time existed from the early 19th century through to the 1960s.
The year of 1956 was a great year for BB as he performed around 342 live shows as well as three recording sessions! In fact this type of busy schedule was to continue throughout his life. 1956 was also the year that he founded his own record label which he called “Blue Boys Kingdom” which was based in Beale Street in Memphis. It was there that he produced artists such as Millard Lee and Levi Seabury.
In 1962, BB King signed to ABC Paramount Records which was later amalgamated with MCA Records and then later absorbed into Geffen Records. In November of 1964, he recorded the 'Live at the Regal' album from his performance at the Regal Theatre. King later said of the album that is considered by some to be the best recording they've owned. He said that on that particular day in Chicago 'everything came together'.
From the late 1960s, he was encouraged to play at a different type of venue by his new manager Sid Seidenberg. King was urged to play at venues related to blues-rock performers such as Eric Clapton and Paul Butterfield who were helping to create an appreciation of ‘the blues’ amongst the white audiences.
He also played as an opening act on the 1969 Rolling Stones’ American tour. This helped him further to gain greater appreciation to a wider audience. And in 1970 he won a Grammy Award for the song "The thrill is gone" with his version becoming a hit on both the pop and R&B charts. It also gained number 183 in the Rolling Stone magazine's 500 greatest songs of all time.
In 1980 BB was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 1987 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2014 into the Official Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was awarded the international Polar Music Prize which is only given to artists recognized for their exceptional achievements in the creation and advancement of music. It's clear to see why this man is highly recognised as one of the most influential and respected of all blues guitar performers.
From the 1980s until his death in 2015, BB continued his very busy lifestyle by appearing on numerous television shows and performing something in the region of an incredible 300 nights a year! And in 1988, he was able to reach an even wider audience when he appeared on the U2 album “Rattle and Hum” with the hit single "When Love Comes to Town" where he collaborated with the band. In December 1997, King performed in the Vatican's fifth annual Christmas concert where he presented his trademark guitar "Lucille" to Pope John Paul II. In 1998, he appeared in The Blues Brothers 2000, playing the part of the lead singer of the Louisiana Gator Boys, along with Eric Clapton, Dr John, Bo Didley and Koko Taylor. And in 2000, BB joined forces again with Eric Clapton to record “Riding with the King”, which won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album.
When BB King talked about how he took playing the blues from the small-time juke joints to the big concert halls, he said that the blues belonged everywhere, and sure enough BB King was highly successful in making certain that that happened by working on both the commercial recordings and the more complex raw, live performances.
BB King's Blues Clubs
Photo by Egghead06 (talk)-Public domain via Wikimedia
A Beale Street developer called John Elkington called upon BB to open the first 'BB King's Blues Club' in 1991 in Memphis. In 1994, a second club was opened at Universal City Walk in Los Angeles, and, in June 2000, a third club was opened in New York City's Time Square. Subsequently, another blues club was opened at Foxwoods casino in Connecticut in January 2002 and another in Nashville in 2003. Further blues clubs were also opened for business in Orlando in 2007, and in West Palm Beach in the Autumn of 2009, with an additional blues club opened in the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas in the winter of 2009. Unfortunately though, from 2015, only the blues clubs located in Memphis, Nashville, and Orlando remain open today. There are apparently plans however to open two new blues clubs in New Orleans and also in Montgomery, Alabama.Back To Top
BB King started a world 'farewell' tour despite remaining active in the last years of his life. Gary Moore, the Northern Irish blues-rock guitarist who BB had already toured and recorded with often supported him during the tour. The tour started in the United Kingdom, and continued in Zurich at the Montreux Jazz Festival. During the show in Montreux BB King jammed with many famous singers and musicians such as Randy Crawford, Gladys Knight, Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin, David Sanborn and many others
BB King attended a memorial of his very first radio broadcast in June 2006 at the Three Deuces Building in Greenwood Mississippi. It is here that an official marker of the Mississippi Blues Trail was erected. The Mississippi Blues Trail was created by the Mississippi Blues Commission in 2006 to place markers at the most notable, influential and historical sites that relate to the birth, development and influence of blues music throughout the state of Mississippi and in some cases beyond the state.
Also in June of 2006, ground works started for a new museum to be built and dedicated to the great blues man in Indianola, Mississippi. It’s called The BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Centre and opened on 13th September 2008.
In late October also in 2006, BB recorded a concert album and video called BB King Live at his BB King Blues Clubs in Nashville and Memphis. He played with his regular blues band with the recording lasting four nights and capturing his live show as he and his band performed it around the world. The recording was released in 2008 and marked his first live performance recording in over ten years.
BB King in Concert 2007
Photo by Kasra Ganjavi CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia
In 2007, BB King played at Eric Clapton's third Crossroads Guitar Festival, a series of music festivals and concerts founded and organized by Eric Clapton to benefit the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a centre for the treatment of drug addiction. There were five festivals in all - 1999 in New York, 2004 in Dallas, Texas, 2007 and 2010 in Bridgeview, Illinois and 2013 again in New York. The concerts were also a recognition for a variety of guitarists who were all hand-picked by Eric Clapton himself. Clapton even addressed the audience of the 2007 concert, saying that each were some of the very best and whom he respected.
BB King played at the Bonnoroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee in the summer of 2008. There he was given a 'key to the city'. This is a symbolic tradition in some countries, such as the United States of America, where an ornamental key (the "Key to the City") is presented to certain individuals whom the city holds in high regard and who the city wants to honour for their work and/or contributions to society. The practice draws its idea from a medieval walled city, where the gates would be guarded during the day and locked at night. The "key to the city" therefore symbolises 'freedom' for the receiver of the key to enter and leave the city as and when they choose as a trusted citizen, without the need for permission.Back To Top
BB King was also inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame in the same year. The Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame is a part of the Hollywood Bowl Museum which features photographs, audio and video recordings as well as memorabilia and artefacts about the history of the Bowl and the many great artists that have performed there.
European Tour - 2009
Photo by Werner100359 - CC BY-SA 3.0 - via Wikimedia Commons
BB King started a European tour in the Summer of 2009 where he played live concerts with his regular band in the United Kingdom, Austria, France, Germany, Belgium, Finland and Denmark.
BB performed at the Mawazine festival in Rabat, Morocco, on 27th May 2010. And in June 2010, he performed at the Crossroads Guitar Festival with Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan. He also contributed to Cyndi Lauper's "Memphis Blues" album which was released on 22nd June 2010.
He played at the Glastonbury Music Festival in Somerset, England in 2011 and also in the Royal Albert Hall in London, England in the same year where he recorded a video of the concert.
BB King was also among the performers, who, on 21st February 2012 performed at the White House. The title of the concert was called "In Performance at The White House: Red, White and Blues". During the concert, President Barack Obama sang part of "Sweet Home Chicago" as seen in the picture below with the aging BB King sitting on the right.
Picture above by Pete Souza (White House (P022112PS-1000)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
BB king has played all over the world and even played at The Byblos International Festival in the Lebanon on 5th July 2012. This is a Lebanese festival held every year in the city of Byblos which is believed to be the first Phoenician city, founded around 5000 BC and possibly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world! The festival is the biggest in the Lebanon, and attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world.
Let's not forget that at this time BB King was 87 years old and still travelling internationally and performing?!
On the 26th May 2013, BB King appeared at The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, often just called The New Orleans Jazz Festival and also known simply as 'Jazz Fest'. The festival is held every year on specific weekends such as; the last weekend (Friday Saturday and Sunday) of April and the first weekend (Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday) of May, although this is not the same for every year I don't think. For more information why not take a look at the official website - http://jazzfestival2016.com
The festival celebrates the music and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana, so the main type of music you can expect to hear if you're lucky enough to get there is blues, jazz (contemporary and traditional), gospel, R&B, Latin, bluegrass, Afro-Caribbean, rock, Country, folk and rap and plenty of other genres in between!Back To Top
BB King made numerous guest appearances on a variety of popular American shows. Such shows were; The Cosby Show, Sesame Street, Touched by an Angel, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Young and the Restless, Married with Children, General Hospital, and Sanford and Son. BB also appeared in a number of films including; Spies like Us, Heart and Souls, and the Blues Brothers. BB also voiced a character in the last episode of Cow and Chicken, an American animated comedy for cartoon network. And a children's TV show in 2000 called Between the Lions had a singing character called 'BB the King Of Beasts'. This character was modelled on the real BB King.
In 2012 a documentary was released about BB which was narrated by Morgan Freeman. And in 1983 and 1993 BB King appeared twice on the PBS television series Austin City Limits.
Austin City Limits (ACL) is an American TV music program recorded live in Austin, Texas and broadcast on various TV stations around the United States. The show was initially created to celebrate the music of Texas and featured a variety of different genres such as; Texas Blues, Western swing, Rock n' Roll, Jazz, Folk and various other styles too. The show helped Austin to become widely known as the 'Live Music Capital of the World'. In fact, I have personally been to Austin myself around fifteen years ago and can honestly say that I was blown away. My friend and I could hear music playing everywhere we went and almost in every club.
BB King was diabetic for over ten years and appeared in several television advertisements for One Touch Ultra, a device for monitoring blood glucose levels for diabetics. In the advert BB King described how 'blue' he felt from being diabetic. There was also a commercial with BB and a young blues musician called Mathew Cooper from Boulder in Colorado who had Type 1 Diabetes since he was one year old. The adverts aimed to promote the use of alternative areas of the body for self-testing.
In 2014, BB King appeared with his famous guitar 'Lucille' in an advertisement for the Toyota Camry. The Toyota Camry is an automobile that has been sold internationally by Toyota since 1982.
BB King's set-up was very simple. At the start of his career he played guitars made by various manufacturers but on most of his recordings with RPM Records he played a Fender Telecaster. It wasn't long however that he started to play the guitar that he was and still is famous for, the Gibson ES-355 and later a signature variation of that model. Most famous guitarists have a signature model of the guitar they play and BB King was no exception of course with the Gibson Guitar Company launching the BB King Lucille model in 1980.
By Werner100359 CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The difference between the standard ES-355 and BB'S signature model is that the signature model has a maple neck instead of a mahogany one. It also has no F-holes on the top, a request from the King to reduce feedback. The signature model also has 'Lucille' on the headstock, with BB King's personal version, seen in the picture to the right, with his name on the fret board.
In 2005 Gibson also made a special run of eighty ES-355 'Lucille' signature models to celebrate BB's 80th birth year. The model was known as the '80th Birthday Lucille' with the first one made given as a birthday gift to BB which he continued to use thereafter.
The main amplifier that BB used was a Lab Series L5 combo that had two twelve inch speakers. The Lab Series amplifiers were developed by Bob Moog for the Gibson parent company Norlin Industries in the 1970s and 80's. They're a solid-state design with a tone that's very similar to a tube amp. They also have an equaliser section that allows you to dial in the exact midrange characteristics that you require. The L5 also has an on-board compressor and four inputs.
The King also used a Fender Twin Reverb which he also thought was a very good amplifier. Watching BB on a YouTube video he said that these amplifiers all sound pretty much the same wherever they're from. I do personally know that fender amplifiers are great for a 'clean sound' and this high-end Fender takes that tradition to another level having earned a reputation of being one of the cleanest tube amps ever.
Regarding what guitar strings he used, BB played with his own signature model strings, namely; 'Gibson SEG-BBS B.B. King Signature Electric Guitar Strings'. He played with 10's. The gauges of all the strings are; 10–13–17p–32w–45w–54w. I've also used 10's for over twenty five years now. For me they're perfect for lots of bending as the top E string never breaks but they still allow enough flexibility this style of playing.
The pick that BB King used was a D'Andrea 351 MD SHL CX (A medium 0.71mm thick, Tortoise Shell look, Celluloid).
BB said "When I sing, I play in my mind, the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing".
This is something that can teach us something about playing too. What he was talking about here is getting into the feel of the music and hearing what to play and when to play it. Improvising in your mind this way is great practice but after a long time it's just what you do as a guitarist. This way your always in the music so to speak.
BB King's recording career is unsurpassed for a blues guitarist. The legendary BB King was probably the single most important electric blues guitarist of the 20th century. His note bending, tremolo style influenced countless blues guitarists that followed, with his gritty voice providing the perfect partner for his authentic, original and passionate playing. Between 1951 and 1985, BB King had an outstanding 74 entries on Billboard's R&B charts. He was also one of the few 'true', 'old school' blues guitarists to cross over to mainstream chart success, by landing a major pop hit with the 1970 song 'The Thrill Is Gone', which influenced appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand, the American music-performance show that aired from 1952 to 1989.
Just take a look at BB's impressive number of recorded albums.Back To Top
BB King was married twice. He was married to Martha Lee Denton in 1946 until 1952 and to Sue Carol Hall in 1958 until 1966. It's said that both marriages were under a lot of pressure from the demands of BB's very busy lifestyle of over 250 performances a year, and it was this that attributed to the failure of both marriages. BB is reported to have fathered 15 children with several different women.
BB was an FAA certificated private pilot after learning to fly in 1963 at what was then known as the Chicago-Hammond Airport in Lansing Illinois. The Chicago-Hammond Airport became the Lansing Municipal Airport after the Village of Lansing acquired it in 1976. The acquisition allowed the airport to become a public facility which made it eligible for federal funding. BB King frequently flew himself to gigs but in 1995 both his insurance company and his manager asked him to fly only with another certified pilot due to his age of seventy years. He therefore stopped flying aged 70.
BB's favourite singer was Frank Sinatra and in his autobiography BB even mentioned about him being a 'Sinatra nut' and how he went to bed every night listening to Sinatra's classic album 'In the Wee Small Hours', Sinatra's ninth studio album and released in April 1955 on Capitol Records.
Frank Sinatra arranged for BB King to play at the main clubs in Las Vegas in the 1960's and BB credited Sinatra for opening 'doors' for black artists and entertainers who were not ordinarily given the chance to play in 'white-dominated' venues.
In 2002, BB King signed up as an official supporter of Little Kids Rock, a national non-profit organisation based in Verona, New Jersey USA. The organisation provides free teaching of music theory and practical instruction for playing instruments to under-served public school districts throughout the United States. Their music curriculum encompasses many different genres including; pop, rock, blues, hip hop, reggae, country and funk with their teaching methods rooted in teaching music as a language with an emphasis on composing and improvisation.
Charity Navigator, a guide to charities, both national and international, recognises Little Kids Rock as a 4-star rated charity and known for restoring and revitalising music education in US public schools.
Due to on-going health problems, BB King was forced to cancel the last eight shows of his 2014 tour and was back at home to recover on the 8th October 2014. On 1st May 2015, after being hospitalised twice due to complications related to high blood pressure and diabetes, BB announced on his website that he was in hospice care at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada. The King of the blues died in his sleep on May 14, 2015 aged 89.
The cause of BB's death was concluded to be multi-infarct dementia, said to be brought on by a series of mini strokes triggered by atherosclerotic vascular disease as a result of type 2 diabetes. There was some controversy surrounding BB's death though when two of his daughters said he was deliberately poisoned by two associates trying to induce a diabetic shock.
Indeed, the Clark County coroner's office confirmed that on 25th May 2015 that it was performing an autopsy on BB's body and conducting a homicide (murder) investigation in conjunction with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. The autopsy revealed there was no evidence of poisoning and that BB King's death was due to complications related to Alzheimer's disease and congestive heart failure.
On 27th May 2015 BB King's body was flown to Memphis in Tennessee where thousands lined the streets to pay their last respects to this most famous of all blues guitar legends. A brass band marching in front of the hearse led the procession down Beale Street while playing "When the Saints Go Marching in". Rodd Bland, the son of the late blues singer Bobby 'Blue' Band (27th January 1930 – 23rd June 2013) carried the latest version of BB's famous Gibson guitar "Lucille." BB'S body was then driven down Route 61 to his hometown of Indianola.
On 29th May 2015, at the BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Centre in Indianola, fans lined up to take one last look at the great man, pay their last respects and say goodbye. BB was laid out in a purple satin shirt and a floral tuxedo jacket with two black Gibson guitars either side.
BB's funeral was held on 30th May 2015 at the Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Indianola, Mississippi. He was buried at the BB King Museum in Indianola.
BB King surely has to be the most famous and influential of all blues guitarists and performers of all time. His energy and passion for playing the blues for so long in so many live performances and recording over forty albums throughout his extremely long and illustrious career is unsurpassed.
He has often been called, and is still recognised as, the 'King of the Blues' and also the 'Ambassador of the Blues'. It's no surprise that he's the most recognisable and influential blues artist of all time as he consistently played around 200 to 300 shows a year! Interestingly enough, just like other well-known blues artists such as John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy, BB managed to change with the times, but was still able to remain loyal and stick to his blues roots throughout his entire career of over sixty years!
BB King surely has to be one of, if not the greatest of all blues guitar legends ever!
Thank you BB, the King of the blues!