Born Riley B. King in Berclair, Mississippi, and raised by his grandmother, the future “King of the Blues” purchased his first guitar for $15 when he was just 12 years old. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade, and spent much of his early years picking cotton and working as a tractor driver.
While he began singing in a gospel choir at church, the blues took root in King during his teen years. The blues is considered by many to be the only truly indigenous American music, and over time, King would become its foremost ambassador.
After a short stint in the Army during World War II, King returned home to work as a farmer. But a tractor accident prompted him to give up that life, and start another in Memphis. There, King officially launched his musical career in the late 1940s.
He honed his vibrato style of playing, worked steady gigs at a string of clubs, got his first real break on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “King Biscuit Time” radio show and hosted a 10-minute program on WDIA as “the Beale Street Blues Boy,” a name he eventually shortened to Blues Boy and then B.B. King. Over the next seven decades, King produced dozens of albums for various labels and released a string of hits (“The Thrill Is Gone,” “3 O’Clock Blues,” “You Know I Love You,” “Woke Up This Morning,” “Every Day I Have The Blues,” “Sweet Little Angel”) that helped to define the genre’s post-war sound, Variety reported.
Although he originally played to all-black audiences, King’s distinctive voice soon won him fans the world over. Between the release of his landmark album “Live at the Regal” in 1965 — which would later be declared a recording worthy of preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry — and the charting of his 1969 LP “Live and Well,” King became a true star. And by the late 1960s, he was making appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show.”
B.B. King (1925-2015).
Lucille is crying…
— Au Bistrot des Mots (@FernandRaynaud) May 15, 2015
Playing on a Gibson ES-355 guitar he lovingly named Lucille, King would weave a musical tapestry of heartfelt soul and pain that masterfully fused elements of blues and jazz. These passionate sounds would not only enrapture audiences but influence many other artists, including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix.
“When I’m singing, I don’t want you to just hear the melody,” King told the AP in 2006. “I want you to relive the story, because most of the songs have pretty good storytelling.”
King won the first of his 15 Grammy Awards in 1951 and joined the Grammy Hall of Fame 47 years later. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and the R&B Music Hall of Fame in 2014. Rolling Stone magazine also ranked him at No. 3 in its 2003 list of the 100 greatest guitarist of all time.
— Lenny Kravitz (@LennyKravitz) May 15, 2015
In the 1990s, King launched a chain of blues clubs bearing his name in cities across the U.S. The venues featured live bands and a full menu of Southern-inspired comfort food, as well as frequent performances by the man himself. A Delta blues museum in Indianola, Mississippi, that aims to “preserve and share the legacy and values of B.B. King,” also bears his name.
When he wasn’t making music, King loved to fly. He was a licensed pilot and until he turned 70, would fly himself to many of his gigs. The indefatigable performer was known for appearing in 250 to 300 concerts a year well into his 70s. Only declining health made him cut back his workload to about 100 shows annually, and those were not as well-received as his earlier shows. King officially launched a “farewell” world tour in 2006, yet remained active until almost the very end, appearing on television programs and in music festivals.
King’s life was chronicled in the 2012 documentary, “The Life Of Riley,” which was narrated by Morgan Freeman and included appearances and contributions from Aaron Neville, Bono, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Willis, Carlos Santana, George Benson, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Ringo Starr, Slash and Susan Tedeschi. He also told his own tale in the autobiography, “Blues All Around Me.”
“B.B. King taps into something universal,” Clapton told The Los Angeles Times in 2005. “He can’t be confined to any one genre. That’s why I’ve called him a ‘global musician.’”
A smart dresser, King preferred to appear on stage wearing a suit or tuxedo, patent leather shoes and diamond rings. Yet unlike other musical artists, he eschewed drugs and alcohol. He did, however, enjoy gambling, the Telegraph reported, and would hit the casinos in Las Vegas whenever he could.
King was married twice, though both unions ended in divorce, reportedly due to the demands of his touring schedule. He was the father to 15 children and a grandfather dozens of times over.
The King is dead, long live The King!
Addio B.B. King pic.twitter.com/uPptRhZ25h
— Umbria Jazz ® (@UmbriaJazz_OFC) May 15, 2015
–Originally published in The Huffington Post.