B.B. King – King of the Blues Guitar

B. B. King is a consummate bluesman. His guitar-playing has been likened to love-making as he caresses notes from “Lucille,” his Gibson 335 guitar. His style is uncluttered, making a liberal use of bends, his signature tremolo, and T-Bone Walker-influenced jazzy blues runs. It’s a “vocal” style, and as King has stated, “I don’t do no chords.” It’s a fully matured style, as befits a man who has achieved his own maturity in life.

King was born Riley King, on September 16, 1925. He was born in rural Mississippi, as were other seminal blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Elmore James. He had a rough youth, his parents separating when he was only four, and his mother dying when he was nine.   His earliest musical influences were found in the Holiness Church in Kilmichael, Mississippi, where the preacher, Archie Fair, led his congregation with a guitar.   Fair taught King how to play the E, A and B chords on a guitar.

Although he was doing farm work, driving a tractor, King followed his muse to Memphis and learned more about guitar-playing from blues master Bukka White. White played “bottleneck” guitar (sliding a bottleneck or another device up and down the fretboard) and King tried to copy him.   “I tried to play the slide like him, but I wasn’t able to do it, so I began to make my hand vibrate, and with the help of an amplifier, I could sustain the sound.”

In 1949, while playing in the town of Twist, Arkansas, King narrowly escaped a fire caused by two men who were arguing over a woman named Lucille and whose fight spilled a bucket of kerosene. Both of those men died in the fire, and King narrowly escaped with his guitar. He named his guitar “Lucille” in memory of his close call.

That same year King got a 10-minute radio show in Memphis on WDIA, sponsored by Pepticon, a tonic which was competing with Hadacol. He could play his guitar and sing whatever he liked, as long as he plugged the sponsor. His quick popularity led the station to expand the program and promote King to deejay.   The show was called the Sepia Swing Club, and King played records by black artists, played his guitar and sang requests from listeners. As a deejay, King needed a catchy name. At first he called himself “the Beale Street Blues Boy,” after a famous Memphis street, later shortening it to “Blues Boy King,” which soon evolved into the now famous “B. B. King.”

King also made his first recordings in 1949, for the Bullet Recording and Transcription Company, which had just moved into what was then called “the race record market” with a “Sepia” record series. (Around that same time Billboard held a contest for a term or phrase to replace “race records.” The winner was “rhythm and blues.”) His first single was “Miss Martha King” (the name of his first wife) b/w “When Your Baby Packs Up and Goes” (Bullet 309).   His second was “Got the Blues” b/w “Take a Swing with Me” (Bullet 315).

These records caught the attention of the brothers Jules, Saul and Joe Bihari, who owned Modern Records, which had three labels, Kent, Crown and RPM. In the summer of 1949 King signed a contract with Modern which continued for more than 10 years. King released 39 singles on the RPM label between 1950 and 1958, moving to the Kent label in 1958. He released 41 more singles on Kent before moving to the ABC-Paramount label in 1962.

Just after Christmas in 1951, King’s seventh RPM single, “Three O’Clock Blues” (RPM 339) hit Billboard’s R&B chart. (The record exists in two different versions, both with the same catalog number.) In early 1952 the song hit No. 1 and stayed there for 15 weeks, gaining King his first national attention, and providing the push for his first tour, which took him to Washington D.C.’s Howard Theatre (his first major gig), Baltimore’s Royal Theatre, and the Apollo in Harlem. But touring destroyed his first marriage, and the news that Martha was leaving him inspired King to write “Woke Up This Morning” (RPM 380; 1953), which was his first big hit after “Three O’Clock Blues.” 

Life on the road is never kind to marriages, and in 1966 it caused the breakup of King’s second marriage as well, to Sue King. This time it also proved to be hit-inspiring: King wrote his biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

For many years King labored in a musical ghetto, well known to black audiences, but virtually unknown to white audiences. Rock and roll changed that. Young white blues guitarists like Elvis Bishop and Mike Bloomfield (who played in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band) readily gave King credit for the licks they’d copied, referring to King as “the real monster” of guitar. This paved the way for King to reach an entirely new audience.   By the late 1960s he was opening for groups like Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janice Joplin’s group) – and it was no treat to follow King, who was in every respect better.  

In 1969 King made his first network TV appearance. Flip Wilson, who was filling in for Johnny Carson, booked him on The Tonight Show. In 1971 he achieved the pinnacle of Middle American success: an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

King’s success was aided by the newfound popularity of urban blues music, but his talent transcended the genre and made him the true “king” of the blues. A believer in the importance of performing before a live audience, he continues to delight his listeners to this day, and record stores carry dozens of his albums, the first of which was the 1956 Singin’ The Blues on Crown (5020).

[You can just feel the 1,000-word limit approaching in that last paragraph.   As time went on – this piece was written in mid-January, 2000 – the restraints imposed on me became greater. No more extended works like the Patsy Cline piece (which refused to break into two parts) and 700 words became the preferred upper limit. I was given to understand that our audience was presumed not to have much patience for reading past the first screen. The problem was, the stories started on the third page/click into the site, and every page was cluttered with extra files which took forever to load.]

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