Riley B. King, affectionately known in most circles as B.B. King, knows all about the million miles or so that lie between his birthplace on a cotton plantation in tiny Itta Bene, Mississippi, and the world’s most celebrated musical stages from London to New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Melbourne and Zaire. He knows about them because in the more than 40 years of his own professional music making, he has trod them, and then some.
Born in 1925, B.B., as a kid, used to play on the corner of Church and Second Streets for dimes. As he got better, and more venturesome, he would sometimes
cover as many as three or four towns on a Saturday night. Finally, in 1947, when B.B. had reached the age of 22, he took guitar and the $2.50 earned picking the night before, and hitchhiked north to Memphis, the city he had heard so much about as the place where the blues were played in a very big time and serious way.
Less than a year later, B.B. was performing as a guest on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas. This led to a number of engagements around town where he became celebrated enough to need a catchy new “radio” name, preferably identified with the blues. And
so it was that “Beale Street Blues Boy” was shortened to Blues Boy King, and finally to B.B. King.
In 1951, King enjoyed his first record hit, “Three O’clock Blues,” which in turn brought about the need to tour and to meet the fans who were buying the records. In the nearly 40 years since then, B.B. and his band have never stopped touring - for a performance average of 275 concerts a year. In 1956,
B.B. and company played an amazing 343 one-night stands.
From the chitlin circuit with its small town cafes and ghetto theaters and roadside joints, to jazz clubs, rock palaces, symphony concert halls, college concerts, resort hotels, and the most prestigious blues musician of the past 40 years, and perhaps of all time. No one has ever carried the diplomatic pouch of the blues to more nations and capital cities than B.B. Over the years, the personal triumphs have been many and varied for B.B. King. In 1969, for example, The Rolling Stones, still in the earlier years of building their own legend, selected B.B. to open 18 American concerts for them. The same year, he made his debut on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson; the “Ed Sullivan Show” and he premiered on the Vegas scene with a date at Caesar’s Palace.
He has won four Grammy Awards and has also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. He is a founding member of the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington; owns four honorary doctorates, from Tougaloo College in Mississippi; Rhodes College in Memphis, Yale University and the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
King has also devoted much time to performing free concerts for prison inmates. In the past 20 years, he has done more than 60 prison concerts and was once accorded the “honorary inmate” citation and presented with a pair of prison-striped pants by grateful inmates in a South Carolina correctional facility.
B.B. has mixed traditional blues, jazz, mainstream pop and jump into a unique composite of all these trains of music. His singing is richly melodic, both vocally and in the “singing” that comes from is guitar. “When I sing,” he says, “I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille (his guitar).”
“I’m trying to get people to see that we are our brother’s keeper; I still work on it. Red, white, black, brown, yellow, rich, poor, we all have these blues.”