B B King


BB King, who has died aged eighty-nine, was one of the most influential guitarists of the past sixty years and a musician who became synonymous with the blues.


Born on a Mississippi plantation, King worked his way up the social ladder through musical talent, personality and sheer hard work that would eventually see him inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, win fifteen Grammys, open a string of night clubs and live in a Las Vegas mansion with a staff of three. And yet he never lost sight of his roots.


He was an enthusiastic supporter of Little Kids Rock, an organisation that provides musical instruments and instruction to underprivileged children across the U.S., worked behind the scenes for prison reform, and every June he returned to his adopted hometown, Indianola, for the BB King Homecoming Festival where he mixed freely with local people and took time out to talk with young and old.


Riley B King was named after his father’s brother who had disappeared after going to prison. When he was four his mother left her husband for another man and the youngster went to live with his grandmother in Kilmichael, Mississippi. After another failed relationship, his mother died and when his father eventually sent for him to come and join his new family, the ten year-old Riley initially declined as he had fallen under the spell of a school teacher, Luther Henson, whose influence stayed with him throughout his life.


He had also begun singing in a gospel group with his cousin Burkett Davis and with a guitar he bought for $2.50 from the money he earned working on the land he and Davis later formed a more sophisticated group to sing in churches on Sundays. On Saturdays Riley, inspired by his mother’s cousin, Bukka White, played blues on street corners and after accidentally damaging the tractor he was by now driving, he set off for Memphis, where White had established a career that would see him celebrated during the 1960s folk-blues revival.


In Memphis, King was initially regarded with scepticism by the local musicians for his rough and ready guitar style. He had charm and a certain authority, though, and an appearance on blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio programme earned King his own ten-minute slot, which developed into a show of his own. The Beale Street Blues Boy nickname, which he’d acquired while playing guitar atop a truck advertising his radio show’s sponsor, the popular health tonic Pepticon, became shortened to Blues Boy and then B.B. King.


Realising that his guitar playing needed sharpening up to Memphis standards, King got White to help him hone his skills. He listened to and studied music avidly, learning blues licks from Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Junior Lockwood and T-Bone Walker and more swinging phrasing from jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian and saxophonist Lester Young. Along with Sam McCrary, of popular gospel group Fairfield Four, King’s vocal guide was Frank Sinatra, whose singing, King felt, spoke honestly to his listeners. Putting all this together, with his guitar solos, all bent notes and strong vibrato, acting as a continuation of his singing (he never mastered playing and singing simultaneously), King emerged in the early 1950s as a potent force.


His first recordings for the Bullet label in 1949 didn’t display the finished article but his talent was noticed by Modern Records who propelled him towards national recognition with Three O’ Clock Blues, which became one of the best-selling R&B records of 1952 and insured that the B.B. King band bus, which had begun touring regularly in the area around the South, was kept on the road almost incessantly, criss-crossing the length and breadth of the U.S. In 1956, King clocked up three hundred and forty-two gigs and even allowing for a dip in popularity when black audiences moved from blues to soul in the early 1960s, he remained on the road for most of the year to the eventual detriment of two marriages.


In 1964 King recorded a performance at the Regal Theater in Chicago, a recording that became a benchmark for live blues albums. It was when he appeared at the Fillmore West in San Francisco in 1968 with Johnny Winter and Mike Bloomfield, however, followed soon after by his recording of Roy Hawkins’ The Thrill is Gone, with the then novel idea of adding a string section, that King reached a whole new audience and was pitched towards world recognition.


British blues guitarists Eric Clapton and Peter Green had been talking King up for some time and his first European trip in 1969 found an enthusiastic following ready to be seduced by his very direct guitar playing and singing of lyrics that left out the more salacious side of blues poetry but still rang with soulful expressions of love. The rock and wider worlds opened up to King. He recorded with Leon Russell, Joe Walsh and Carole King and became a fixture at jazz festivals across Europe and while hard line fans didn’t rate his late 1970s/early 1980s albums with funk masters the Crusaders, they drew new people to his music.


Another generation of listeners discovered King when he guested with U2 on When Love Comes to Town in 1989, adding authentic Memphis zing to their stadium rock, and film soundtracks and television theme tunes added to his profile.


In later years King’s touring schedule slowed down a little but the call of the road was too strong for him to retire and latterly sitting down to sing and play, he remained every inch the blues elder statesman. He recorded and performed with Eric Clapton, an old friend, into his eighties, appeared at Glastonbury Festival in 2011, performed with Barack Obama at the White House, recorded with rapper Big K.R.I.T. and was celebrated in The Life of Riley, a documentary including testimonies from Dr John, George Benson, Aaron Neville and Carlos Santana and narrated by Morgan Freeman. 


BB King, born September 16, 1925; died May 14, 2015.


From The Herald, May 16, 2015


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