As the last state in the United States to officially abolish slavery in 2013, Mississippi maintains occupies a complicated place in American history. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the Black hands that toiled with cotton on plantations created the blues to describe their experiences with racism and poverty through song, revealing the vicious reality of life Deep South. One of the most important voices to shape that genre was lost on Friday at the age of 89.
Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925 to sharecroppers Albert and Nora Ella King. He hailed from rural Itta Bena, a small town nestled inside of Leflore County, Mississippi, which gave birth to two titans of Black culture: James Bevel and Marion Barry.
By the tender age of seven, King was in the fields picking and chopping cotton with the hands that would one day make him famous. At the age of 4, his grandmother assumed primary responsibility for him. It was in her care that he joined the local church choir and became exposed to the blues, which would quickly become a passion of his,
King bought his first guitar at 12 years old for $15, inspired by the recordings of Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker and other titans of the Blues. At the age of fifteen, King decided to drop out of school and work as a farmhand by driving a tractor; he would marry his first wife, Martha shortly thereafter, but they divorced after just two years. At the same time, he was teaching himself how to play the guitar and developing his vocal ranges. As the 1940s came to a close, King ventured to Memphis, Tennessee in an effort to find a new employment and begin his music career. After landing a performing gig on Beale Street, he became an instant hit and his “Beale Street Blues Boy” persona was born.
Despite the numerous hardships King endured in his early years, he quickly found success as a popular disc jockey on WDIA, a Memphis radio station, which positioned him to become a recording artist. His nickname transformed from “Beale Street Blues Boy” to “Blues Boy” to the two letters the world affectionately knew him by, “B.B.” After signing a recording contract with Nashville-based Bullet Records in 1949, he released his first single, an ode to his first wife, entitled “Miss Martha King.” Even though the recording failed to yield success on the charts, it gave him the opportunity to tour the country and perform in major theaters and small establishments. As the story goes, at one of these performances in Arkansas, a melee broke out between two men and the place caught fire. King went back into the blaze and retrieved his trusted guitar. The two men lost their lives due to fighting over a girl named Lucille. Thus, King dubbed his guitar with the name Lucille.
In 1952, he recorded his first number one record, “Three O’Clock Blues.” It stayed atop the rhythm and blues charts for a staggering fifteen weeks. For the remainder of the decade, King recorded hit after hit: “You Know I Love You,” “Sweet Little Angel,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Woke Up This Morning,” among many others. As a result, his weekly salary soared from under $100 into the thousands. Due to his successes, midway through the decade, he established his own record label, Blues Boys Kingdom in Memphis, toured the then popular Chitlin’ Circuit, and broke records by booking over 300 shows in one year. These grand feats were accomplished during the era of segregation and on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. Around this time, he married again—this time to a woman named Sue Hall, but it again ended in divorce.
As the 1960s arrived, King served as a bridge from the pioneering days of blues music to the up and coming rock and roll acts taking center stage on the musical landscape. During this decade, he hit his prolific stretch as a recording artist by releasing fourteen studio albums and in 1965, he recorded his well-known Live at the Regal album at the Regal Theater in Chicago, Illinois. This album is widely regarded as one of the best blues albums ever recorded. Somehow between recording these great songs, he learned how to fly in 1963 and became a certified pilot. He routinely flew to gigs for the next thirty years. At the end of this time period, his career received another boost when he was the opening act for The Rolling Stones on their 1969 American Tour. White audiences started to gravitate to him en masse.
King ushered in the Seventies in stellar fashion by winning a Grammy Award for his version of “The Thrill is Gone” in 1970. This song became the last of his biggest hits during his prominent career. Around this time, blues music was being abandoned by newer Black acts on the music scene, but King embraced the challenge, and began collaborating with R&B stalwarts like Stevie Wonder. From 1970 to 1979, he released nine albums and continued this ravenous work-ethic by being on the road playing between 200 to 300 concerts for the majority of the decade.
Over the next three decades, he would release seventeen more albums and received induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other accolades. He also collaborated with a diverse group of artists such as Eric Clapton, D’Angelo, Heavy D and Bonnie Raitt. His music has been sampled by some of hip-hop’s elite, from Ice Cube to Big Krit. Although, he suffered with Type II diabetes, he remained one of the hardest working men in show business. He is said to have fathered 15 children and had more than 50 grandchildren to carry on his proud legacy.
In the pantheon of Black music, King is a standard-bearer. There isn’t an American blues genre without his unique vocal techniques, the strumming of his trademark Gibson ES-355, and introspective storytelling. He was the consummate showman and had a work ethic only rivaled by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. May he find his place in Heaven’s band.