On this edition of In Black America, producer/host John L. Hanson Jr. speaks with legendary blues musician B.B. King. King died on May 14, 2015. He was 89.
The winner of 15 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Kennedy Center Honors, and more, King leaves a legacy of influence on American music. Coming from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, he remained true to the blues, and won millions of fans including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and U.S. Presidents.
For more than half a century, Riley B. King – better known as B.B. King – defined the blues for a worldwide audience. Since he started recording in the 1940s, he has released over fifty albums. Born on September 16, 1925, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, near Indianola. In his youth, he played on street corners for dimes, and would sometimes play in as many as four towns a night. In 1947, he hitchhiked to Memphis, TN, to pursue his music career.
King’s first big break came in 1948 when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM out of West Memphis. This led to steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis, and later to a ten-minute spot on black-staffed and managed Memphis radio station WDIA. “King’s Spot,” became so popular, it was expanded and became the “Sepia Swing Club.” Soon King needed a catchy radio name. What started out as Beale Street Blues Boy was shortened to Blues Boy King, and eventually B.B. King.
In the mid-1950s, while he was performing at a dance hall in Twist, Arkansas, a few fans became unruly. Two men got into a fight and knocked over kerosene stove, setting fire to the hall. King raced outdoors to safety with everyone else, then realized that he left his beloved guitar inside, so he rushed back inside the burning building to retrieve it, narrowly escaping death. When he later found out that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he decided to give the name to his guitar to remind him never to do a crazy thing like fight over a woman. Since then, each one of his trademark Gibson guitars has been called Lucille.
Soon after his number one hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” he began touring nationally. In 1956, King and his band played an astonishing 342 one-night stands. From the chitlin circuit with its small-town cafes, juke joints, and country dance halls to rock palaces, symphony concert halls, universities, resort hotels and amphitheaters, nationally and internationally, King had become the most renowned blues musician of the past 60 years.
Over the years, King has developed one of the world’s most identifiable guitar styles. He borrowed from Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and others, integrating his precise and complex vocal-like string bends and his left hand vibrato, both of which have become indispensable components of rock guitarist’s vocabulary. He has mixed traditional blues, jazz, swing, mainstream pop and jump into a unique sound. In his own words, “When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.”
In 1968, King played at the Newport Folk Festival and at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West on bills with the hottest contemporary rock artists of the time who idolized him and helped to introduce him to a young white audience. In 1969, he was chosen by the Rolling Stones to open 18 American concerts for them; Ike and Tina Turner also played on 18 shows.
In 1984, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He received NARAS’ Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1987, and has received honorary doctorates from Tougaloo(MS) College in 1973; Yale University in 1977; Berklee College of Music in 1982; Rhodes College of Memphis in 1990; Mississippi Valley State University in 2002 and Brown University in 2007. In 1992, he received the National Award of Distinction from the University of Mississippi.
In 1991, B.B. King’s Blues Club opened on Beale Street in Memphis, and in 1994, a second club was launched at Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles. A third club in New York City’s Times Square opened in June 2000 and two clubs opened at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut in January 2002. In 1996, the CD-Rom On The Road With B.B. King: An Interactive Autobiography was released to rave reviews. Also in 1996, King’s autobiography, “Blues All Around Me” written with David Ritz for Avon Books was published. In a similar vein, Doubleday published “The Arrival of B.B. King” by Charles Sawyer, in 1980.
In 2008, King released his album One Kind Favor to critical acclaim. He did his own take on songs by John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and Lonnie Johnson, earning yet another Grammy Award for his efforts, marking his 15th win. In February 2012, King played a special gig at the White House with Buddy Guy and others. He and his fellow performers were accompanied by President Barack Obama on the song "Sweet Home Chicago.