At the turn of the century, after the Civil War and before the Civil Rights Movement, in the mighty muddy delta region of Mississippi, a king was born – “The King of the Blues”.
Born Riley B. King, but now known better as “B.B.,” King did not earn his title through a noble birthright, but wholly through his affable persona, tireless struggles and lifelong devotion to music. Releasing over 50 albums, averaging nearly 300 performances per year, and earning countless accolades, King was one of the most staggeringly talented and influential blues entertainers of all time.
King’s musical education started early as he would regularly attend church with his mother and grandmother and enthusiastically sang in the choir. For King, church was the highlight of his week. When he saw the church pastor play a guitar, his attention was diverted from singing – he coveted the instrument. On many occasions, the pastor would visit King’s family and bring along his guitar. Seeing it unattended, King could not resist stroking its tempting curves. When the pastor caught King admiring the instrument, he made sure to show King how to hold it and pointed out some basic chords – this was the only music lesson King ever had.
At 12, King used his month’s salary of $15 from working on the plantation to buy his first guitar.
A New Career
King never dreamt of becoming a blues legend much less making a career out of it. Instead, he saw himself becoming a preacher, owning a farm, marrying a beautiful woman and having lots of children. That simple sketch was attractive enough for him. But it was listening to other blues musicians that started King on a new course and catapulted him to dream bigger, to dream of cultivating a better life for himself.
Countless blues artists inevitably molded King but Blind Lemon Jefferson’s raw gritty style and blues stories hit King bone-close. During his lunch hour break from the plantation, King would gather around with other farm workers and listen to Sonny Boy Williamson on a popular blues radio show called The King Biscuit Hour. It wasn’t until he heard Robert Lockwood that King started fantasizing about becoming a blues musician. And it was ultimately T-Bone Walker’s guitar style that electrified King. Fusing these styles and influences together, he started to develop his own sound.
At the end of World War II, King moved north of Memphis and auditioned for Sonny Boy Williamson. He was so impressed with King that he offered him a DJ position at his radio station. It was there that he acquired the nickname Beale Street Blues Boy which was later shortened to B.B.
Anyone that knew anything about King knew about his long-time love affair with his trademark guitar, “Lucille.” King used various models of Gibson guitars over the years and named them each of them Lucille. The first “Lucille” got its name when a fire broke out at a nightclub that King was performing at in Arkansas. When it got cold they would light a garbage bin with kerosene to heat up the space. On that particular night, two men started fighting and knocked over the bin causing the building to be consumed in flames. As people started scattering, King followed suit. After running out of the building, King realized he had left his guitar inside. Without a second thought, King ran back into the building, risking his life to recover it.
The next day King found out the two men were fighting over a woman named Lucille.
To remind himself never do anything so foolish again as to enter a burning building, King named his guitar Lucille. B.B. retells this story most famously in his song “Lucille.”
Rest in Peace
Last week, news broke that B.B. King had passed away, saddening his friends, family and fans, all over the world. He was truly a legend and one of the greatest blues musicians of all time. Many people know King from his signature song “The Thrill is Gone,” which won him his first [of many] Grammys in 1970.
As long as we can still hear it, the thrill of B.B. King’s music will never be gone.
To celebrate his life and his rich musical legacy, AccuRadio has assembled a collection of stations featuring the music of B.B. King. Listen and remember the great music that he’s made over the course of his timeless career.
You will be missed.
Photos courtesy of BBKing.com.