B.B. King: King of the Blues

A King yesterday, and a King today! Many there are who would make themselves royalty, but it’s fair I think to say, both undistiputed and indisputable, that Riley “B.B.” King (1925-2015) was far and away the most successful blues man America produced whilst remaining entirely within that one form (i.e., not R & B, soul, or rock ‘n’ roll). It’s downright crazy what he achieved in terms of mainstream fame, much of it within my lifetime (and, readers, I’m not that old. At least in terms of this kind of music). Because my brother was a fan, I knew about him when I was a kid — his success continued to snowball for decades after that. Some of his achievement may be chalked up to longevity; all of the original blues giants died decades before he did. But there are other reasons, too.

Like so many in his business, King grew up sharecropping in Mississippi. But he had one advantage over some others — he was a cousin of blues star Bukka White, whom we wrote about here. As a young man, King followed White to Memphis and began playing local joints and on radio (this was the mid to late ’40s). Here he was given the nickname the “Beale Street Blues Boy”, later shortened to “Blues Boy”, and then finally just “B.B”.

King got his first recording contract in 1949 (still only 24 years old) and began his heavy touring schedule immediately, intitially working the Chitlin’ Circuit and all-black venues like the Apollo. He first hit the R&B charts in 1951. He would not make it to the pop chart for another couple of decades, but he was always a top seller in the R&B and blues categories. There was much that was distinctive about his act. For example, unlike most guitarists, he never played chords; he only improvised lead lines, as punctuation for his husky, forceful vocals. (Reminds me a little of Irving Berlin, who could only play piano in the key of C. The limitation didn’t stop him from being a genius. Instead it became part of what made him unique). And part of his patter included the famous story about his guitar Lucille. I’ve always loved this story because it’s a bait and switch. You think the upshot will be that he named the guitar after the love of his life, or his mother, or a little girl or something. Instead, he related on occasion when two dudes were fighting over a girl named Lucille and a fire broke out. King ran back into the burning club to retrieve the guitar. So he named the guitar after the girl (whom he had nothing to do with) to remind him never to do that again.

King had an extremely distinctive style of playing, a clean, expressive manner of note bending and string vibrating that was very influential. He not only influenced players within his own blues community, but the largely white blues revivalists who came along in the next generation. Hence Eric Clapton is probably his best known acolyte, and he is one of the many reasons King’s stock began to rise even more starting in the ’60s. In 1969, he toured as an opening act for the Rolling Stones. In 1970 he had his own bona fide top 40 hit “The Thrill is Gone”. This is when he began appearing on mainstream TV talk shows and variety shows. In the ’80s came another blues boom. He was in the 1985 John Landis films Spies Like Us and Into the Night, as well as Blues Brothers 2000 (1998). In 1991 he started the first B.B. King Blues Club in Memphis. It became a chain, with venues in several major cities. There was one on 42nd Street, right in the heart of Times Square, from 2000 to 2018. Naturally King was one of the stars of Martin Scorsese’s 2003 blues documentary series. A documentart about King himself came out in 2012, with Morgan Freeman as narrator.

B.B. King was still performing until his death in 2015 at age 89. But there were posthumous appearances! His earlier recorded interviews were in a 2017 documentary about Paul Butterfield (another of his disciples) and as of this writing there is a upcoming documentary about Leadbelly that will feature him as well.

To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous