Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Riley B. King, 16 September 1925, near Indianola MS; d 14 May 2015, Las Vegas) Guitarist, blues singer. From a poor plantation family; his parents separated when he was four, mother died when he was nine. He sang in church, began to learn guitar at 15, formed a gospel group; turned to the blues after U.S. Army service, played local gigs, moved to Memphis '47 and shared a flat with his cousin Bukka White. He worked on WDIA singing commercials, then had own disc jockey show as Riley King, the Blues Boy from Beale Street (soon shortened to B. B.). Worked with Bobby Blue Bland, Johnny Ace etc, also solo; at a gig in Twist, Arkansas '49 men fighting over a girl named Lucille knocked over a kerosene heater, setting the room on fire; King fled with everyone else, but ran back inside to get his guitar: he called his guitar Lucille, and a monologue/song based on the incident became a staple of his stage act.

A record deal with Modern Music (RPM, Kent, Crow, Modern Oldies labels) led to 31 hits in the R&B chart '51-68, 15 in the top ten (first two '3 O'Clock In The Morning' and 'You Know I Love You' at no. 1). His style was not pure enough for blues purists but too pure to cross over to the pop charts; he worked the chitlin circuit (from '55 with his own 13-piece band: he survived 18 car crashes, did 342 one-night stands in '56 alone), the personal integrity evident in his music meaning that he would rather lose money than miss a gig. He switched to a new booking agent in the late '50s, supported popular acts like Lloyd Price and made more money, but was often booed by black as well as white kids.

Yet influenced by T-Bone Walker and Django Reinhardt, his combination of Delta blues, R&B beat, guitar style (the guitar as a second voice, with 'bent' notes emphasizing a note by sliding to it) and his warm, honest vocal styling made him the greatest blues artist of his generation; he invented and was the greatest practitioner of the style that influenced Eric Clapton in the UK, Mike Bloomfield in the USA, many others; in '64 he had the first of six top 40 pop hits ('Rock Me Baby'). But in '66 his bus was stolen, his wife divorced him, tax authorities hassled him; his career was stymied. But he had switched to ABC (and Bluesway, now MCA); they released Live At The Regal '65, one of his best albums, but then put him in front of an orchestra (Confessin' The Blues '66). He had never lost a mainstream black audience that had supported him for many years; the R&B hits continued, but now the long overdue breakthrough occurred: at San Francisco's Fillmore West '66 he received a standing ovation from a white audience that had discovered the blues behind rock'n'roll, just as years earlier some of their parents discovered the black jazz behind the swing bands. In '68 he toured Europe, played at NYC's Village Voice; in '69 he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and on the Tonight show (comedian Flip Wilson depping for Johnny Carson), and toured with the Rolling Stones; he toured Europe and Australia '70, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show '71, went to Africa '72.

Meanwhile his records were released on ABC's new Bluesway subsidiary. Blues Is King '67 (live in a Chicago club) was said to capture his guitar sound best of all his LPs; Blues On Top Of Blues, Lucille (first to make pop LP chart), His Best -- The Electric B. B. King (including no. 10 pop hit 'Paying The Cost To Be The Boss'), all '68 were followed by Live And Well (top 60 pop LP), Completely Well (top 40, both '69): the latter included 'So Excited', a new treatment of Walter Brown's 'Confessin' The Blues', no. 15 pop hit single 'The Thrill Is Gone'; the band was Hugh McCracken, second guitar; Paul Harris, keyboards; Gerald 'Fingers' Jemmott, bass; Herbie Lovelle, drums. (Hugh McCracken, b 31 March 1942 in Glen Ridge NJ, d 28 March 2013 in NYC of leukemia, was an ace session player who deserved to be much better known.) On Indianola Mississippi Seeds '70 (no. 26 LP), 1.5 minutes of 'Nobody Loves Me But My Mother (And She Might Be Jivin' Too)' set the tone, with just B. B.'s voice and piano; the album included tracks from the Completely Well sessions, others with a sympathetic young team: Russ Kunkel, drums; Bryan Garofalo, bass; Carole King, piano on four tracks, Leon Russell on piano and Joe Walsh, rhythm guitar on three more including the top 40 hit 'Ask Me No Questions', Russell's 'Hummingbird' (the last two LPs produced by Bill Szymczyk, strings and horns added discreetly).

Live In Cook County Jail '71 was a milestone, with septet included horns, his biggest hit LP at no. 25. Live At The Regal was reissued; B. B. King In London '71, L.A. Midnight '72, Guess Who '72 (reissued in UK on Music for Pleasure as King Of The Blues) followed by To Know You Is To Love You '73 including top 40 title track. More: two-disc Together For The First Time/Live '74, Together Again/Live '76, both with Bobby Bland; Lucille Talks Back '75, King Size '77, Midnight Believer '78, Now Appearing At Ole Miss '80, There Must Be A Better World Somewhere '81 (won a Grammy), Love Me Tender '82, Blues'n'Jazz '83, Why I Sing The Blues and Six Silver Strings '85. He was the first bluesman to tour the USSR, in the late '70s.

A concert at London's Hammersmith Odeon in October 1978 was typical of his long-overdue success: the UK audience forgot its usual reserve, flooded down to the stage after a superb evening's music to touch the hem of his garment. Older material on Ace and Flair CDs; many reissues on MCA include a four-CD compilation King Of The Blues; Blues Summit '93 included duets with Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Etta James and others. Deuces Wild '97 was another album of duets, this time with the usual rock luminaries (Clapton, Van Morrison etc), a tired and unnecessary supper-club album. B. B. King: The Authorized Biography '80 by Charles Sawyer told his story.