One of the all time blues greats, Mr. B.B. King, has passed away yesterday after living a long, influential life in music.
Here’s a slightly revised version of the bio I wrote for B.B. in my book Legends of the Blues (if you don’t have this book by now, what in the heck is wrong with you?):
Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925 in Itta Bena, Mississippi. After his father left the family, Riley grew up in his mother’s and grandmother’s homes. He worked as a sharecropper and sang gospel, then moved to Indianola, Mississippi, in 1943. Country and gospel were his first influences, followed by the music of T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. In 1946, he studied guitar for ten months in Memphis under his cousin, bluesman Bukka White. After months of hardship, Riley returned to Indianola.
King came back to Memphis in 1948, working at radio station WDIA as a singer and disc jockey, gaining the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy,” (hence, “B.B.”; not “B. B.”, by the way). Upon first hearing T-Bone Walker, he promptly purchased an electric guitar. King cut tracks for Bullet, then began recording for RPM with (famed Elvis Presley) producer Sam Phillips. King’s first R&B #1 was Lowell Fulson’s “Three O’Clock Blues” (1951).
In the mid-1950s, while B.B. was performing at an Arkansas dance, a kerosene stove got knocked over during a fight, setting the place ablaze. B.B. raced outdoors with the crowd. Realizing he had left his beloved $30 acoustic guitar inside, he rushed back in to retrieve it, narrowly escaping death. After finding out the brawl had been over a woman named Lucille, he named his guitar “Lucille” as a reminder never to be so crazy as to fight over a woman. Since then, each of his Gibson guitars has been named Lucille. The original Lucille was stolen from his car’s trunk in Brooklyn. He offered a $20,000 reward but no one ever came forward. He eventually had an open offer of $100,000 for the return of that beloved guitar.
King moved to ABC-Paramount Records in 1962, cutting his majestic Live at the Regal LP in 1964. He gained a huge crossover audience via the late 1960s blues revival. His 1969 remake of Roy Hawkins’ “The Thrill Is Gone” was both a huge pop and R&B hit. Between 1951 and 1985, King scored 74 times on Billboard’s R&B charts. In 1988 King collaborated with U2, then with Eric Clapton on 2000’s double platinum Riding with the King. In the 1980s/90s, King gigged an average of 300 nights a year, making a series of high profile recordings at the same time.
King owned blues clubs around the USA. Despite his 2005 “Final Farewell Tour,” he continued to perform worldwide. The B.B. King Museum opened in 2008.
Here is some B.B. King trivia of which you might not be aware: Boxer Sonny Liston was B. B.’s uncle. King was a vegetarian, a licensed pilot, a non-drinker and non-smoker. He had Type II Diabetes and was a visible spokesman in the fight against the disease. B.B’s favorite singer was Frank Sinatra.
How about some recommended B.B. King tracks for your listening pleasure? They’re all great examples of why he was so revered: The entire B.B. King Live at The Regal CD (an essential disc for any music collection); also “You Know I Love You,” “Please Love Me,” “When My Heart Beats like a Hammer,” “Sneakin’ Around,” “Ten Long Years,” “Bad Luck,” “On My Word of Honor,” “Please Accept My Love,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “Got a Right to Love My Baby,” “Partin’ Time,” “Don’t Answer the Door,” “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss,” “Why I Sing the Blues”
Here are a couple of interesting covers of B.B. songs by some Brits: “Sweet Little Angel” (Jeff Beck Group; sung by Rod Stewart) and “When My Heart Beats like a Hammer” (Fleetwood Mac).
Also: check out B.B.’s interesting collaboration with U2, “When Love Comes to Town”.
I saw B.B. King perform live at one of his creative peaks (around the time of his Live at the Regal LP). Here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming book, William Stout: Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart:
When I attended my first Shrine Exposition Hall show, I had no idea what to expect.
The Shrine, as we called it (not to be confused — as it often is — with its nearby cousin the Shrine Auditorium), was a big empty hall with a stage at one end and no seats. It was easy to access the front of the stage. On the second floor the shows could be viewed from the balcony. The bands’ dressing rooms were both upstairs and downstairs.
Believe it or not, the price of admission to the Shrine shows was usually $2.50 in advance, $3.00 at the door. Why I didn’t attend every single show regardless of who was playing bears witness to how poor I was and what things cost back then (as evidenced by what now seems like a “mere” half a buck difference between buying advance tickets or purchasing them at the door). To a poor art student sometimes fifty cents meant the difference between going and not going.
On my first Shrine night the line-up was Sons of Champlin, followed by B.B. King and then the headliners: The Yardbirds (with Jimmy Page; it was their last live appearance).
B.B. King followed Sons of Champlin with a concise, powerful set (pretty much the same songs that are on BB King’s Live at the Regal LP). Blues fans were jamming their heads into B.B.’s huge speakers, trying to absorb every note. It was my first real blues show and I was lucky enough to be in the hands of an incredibly classy master.
From the moment he took the stage I loved the guy — along with the rest of the entire audience. He was so elegant, yet incredibly human, warm and inclusive. He gave an incredible show that connected with every single person attending. There was a little bit of The Church in his show, as he passed down some of the wisdom about life and women that he had acquired in his long and challenging life. That show made me a lifelong B.B. King fan.
Last Saturday I saw my friend Van Dyke Parks give his final piano/vocal concert. One of his special guests that evening was Joe Walsh. The blues riffs that Joe played on one of Van Dyke’s songs immediately made me think of B.B. They were precise, elegant and soulful. Not a single “extra” note was played nor needed. It was an aural vision of economy. Even my wife commented on the elegance and economy of Joe’s playing. If not channeling B.B. King, King’s influence at the very least was profoundly felt that evening in Mr. Walsh’s performance — and it made me smile as I thought of B.B. and all the people he touched.
B.B., you may have left Earth but before you did you gave us a bounty of musical gifts that will provide solace, inspiration and joyful happiness to millions for centuries to come.
Rest in peace to the man Bill Graham introduced to 1960s white audiences as “The Chairman of the Board”: Mr. B.B. King.