Riley B. King was born to a family of poor sharecroppers on a plantation near the small town of Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta. King's parents separated when he was only five and his mother took him to live in the nearby hill country in Kilmichael, Mississippi. By age seven he was doing the work of a grown man in the field. He was only nine when his mother died.
He found inspiration in the music of the African American church. He dreamed of becoming a gospel singer and learned the rudiments of guitar from his preacher. He arranged with his employer to acquire his first guitar and taught himself further with mail-order instruction books.
In his teens, he dropped out of school and returned to the Delta, where he drove a tractor on a large plantation. On his off hours, he sang for small change on street corners in the nearby towns, sometimes visiting as many as four towns in a single evening. He also joined small gospel groups and urged the other singers to join him in leaving the plantation life for the opportunities of the city. In the end, he made the decision to go on his own, and hitchhiked to Memphis with $2.50 in his pocket. To a farm boy, the city was an intimidating sight, but he was able to stay for a time with his cousin, the well-known bluesman Bukka White, who helped him find his way in the city's music circles.
After a year of playing on the street and learning from the other performers who gathered on Beale Street, he was given an opportunity to perform on the blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson's popular radio program. Soon he was playing regularly in local night clubs and was given a regular spot on a black-run radio station. As a radio personality he was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, later shortened to "Blues Boy" King.
He made his first recording in 1949 and released six singles before the year was out. He was signed to a long-term recording contract and began to play in the small-town cafes, juke joints, and country dance halls of the region, as far away as he could travel and still return in time for his radio program.
B.B. King Biography Photo
He was playing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas when a fight broke out on the dance floor. A kerosene lantern fell over and the wooden building caught on fire. At first, King fled along with the crowd, but he dashed back into the burning building to rescue his cherished guitar and barely escaped alive. When he learned the men were fighting over a woman named Lucille, he gave the name to his guitar to commemorate his close call. Ever since, he has called every one of his trademark Gibson guitars "Lucille."
In 1951 he recorded his seventh single, "Three O'Clock Blues," which became a national hit, staying at number one on the Rhythm and Blues charts for 15 weeks. On the strength of this hit record, he embarked on his first national tour. Appearing in New York for the first time, he shortened his stage name to B.B. King, the name under which he and his music have traveled around the world.
He enjoyed a second number one R&B hit with 1952's "You Don't Know Me." More hit records followed, with "Please Love Me," and "You Upset Me, Baby." By 1955, he had given up his radio job to tour full time, and bought a bus he called "Big Red" to transport his band. B.B. and the band played 342 one-night stands in 1956 alone.
Still in his late 20s, he had become one of the leading performers on the blues circuit. Audiences from the deep South to the large cities of the North thrilled to his rich, warm voice and reveled in his humor and depth of feeling. Aspiring guitarists studied his records to emulate his singing, stinging tone. With his crack horn section, he created a fresh fusion of gospel, jazz, pop and traditional blues that set a new standard
B.B. King Biography Photo
Disaster struck in 1958 when his tour bus collided with a gas truck on a bridge in Texas. King was not on board and none of his musicians was seriously injured, but the truck driver was killed, and the bus was burned beyond repair. King's insurance company was in the process of dissolution following federal anti-trust action, and the accident occurred on the very weekend King's insurance was terminated.
It took years for King to repay the debts incurred, and while he remained popular among black audiences in the late 1950s, he did not achieve the crossover success with white audiences that contemporaries like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard enjoyed. A change of record companies did little to boost King's career, and by the early '60s his first fans were aging and his audience dwindling, despite another radio hit, 1960's "Sweet Sixteen, Part I."
King's fortunes began to change in the mid-1960s, when a new generation of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic gratefully cited him as a major influence on their own music. He recorded a historic live album, Live at the Regal, in 1965 and returned to the Rhythm and Blues charts with "Don't Answer the Door, Part I" in 1966. Young rockers such as George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck all displayed his influence in their playing, and B.B. King won a new audience among young rock fans. King went from playing smaller blues clubs to larger jazz and rock venues.
B.B. King Biography Photo
In 1968, he played at the Newport Folk Festival, and in 1969 he opened 18 American concerts for the Rolling Stones. National television appearances on the The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show brought him his largest audience yet. In 1970 his song "The Thrill Is Gone" crossed over to the pop charts. No longer the star of a segregated minority, or the cult hero of musicians and aficionados, B.B. King had become a national institution.
His tours now took him to concert halls, universities and amphitheaters, where audiences clamored for his many favorites, "Payin' The Cost to Be the Boss," "How Blue Can You Get," "Every Day I Have the Blues," and "Why I Sing the Blues." In the '70s and '80s, he played nearly 300 dates per year, taking his band to Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and Australia.
B.B. King Biography Photo
B.B. King was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1987, and has collected awards and honorary doctorates from the University of Mississippi, Yale University and Berklee College of Music. In 1988 he recorded a track with Irish rockers U2, "When Love Comes to Town," for their album Rattle and Hum. The song became a hit and the record and associated concert film introduced King to a whole new generation of music lovers.
Over the course of his career, B.B. King has received 18 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of the Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors. In 1991, he opened B.B. King's Blues Club in Memphis; he has since opened clubs in New York, Los Angeles and Connecticut. His autobiography, Blues All Around Me, was published in 1996. His 2000 release, Riding With the King, paired him with his longtime admirer, Eric Clapton. B.B. continues to tour extensively, averaging over 250 concerts per year around the world. He is inarguably the most imitated of living blues guitarists, and his influence on music around the world is incalculable.