Most American listeners have heard of the famous name “B.B. King” at least once in their life. But does our generation know why B.B. King is an essential element to American music? One way you can answer this question is to say that King is the roots of the current blues and rock guitarists. But in order to fully answer this question, we must examine the ways in which he made the blues significant over the years.
Riley B. King was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, on September 16, 1925. He learned the guitar from his uncle at age 15. In the late 1940s, King was singing and playing guitar in a group called Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers.
In 1947, King moved to Memphis and earned a living picking cotton, sang gospel songs on the local street corner, and studied music under Cousin Bukka White. In 1948, King landed a gig on Sonny Boy Williamson’s local radio show that led to a job at a West Memphis jux joint where he played six nights a week. Station manager called Riley King the “Beale Street Blues Boy”, because he had played for tips in Beale Street Park. Thus, the nickname B.B. King was born.
The first song King recorded was “Three O’Clock Blues” in 1949, which appealed to U.S., R&B, and pop single charts. His signature song is “Thrill is Gone,” because of his guitar cries as he told a tale of forsaken love. King ends the song by shouting, “Now that it’s all over, all I can do is wish you well.”
In 1949, King started playing a black-with-gold-hardware Gibson ES-355-style guitar that is famously known as “Lucille.” Throughout his life, he has played with many guitars and put the name “Lucille” on each one.
King developed a call and response technique where King sings and then “Lucille” responds to those lyrics. His vocals consisted of a throaty vocal howl paired with a ringing single-note vibrato sound that is played on “Lucille.”
According to Rolling Stone, King once said, “When I pay her, it’s almost like hearing words, and of course, naturally I hear cries. I’d be playing sometimes as I’d play, it seems like it almost has a conversation with me. It tells you something. It communicates with me.”
King’s plaintive roaring vocals and soaring guitar playing style set a standard for an art form born in the American South. King not only inspired blues musicians like Otis Rush and John Mayall, but also classic rock guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones.
In the ‘60s, King began playing with blues influenced British bands like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. In the ‘70s, King recorded with famous musicians like blues vocalists Bobby Bland, funk/soul singer Stevie Wonder, and classic rock group U2. In 1987, King was inducted into the Rock & Roll of Fame.
According to The News Tribune, King once said, “The crowds treat me like my last name. When I go onstage people usually stand up, I never ask them to, but they do. They stand up and they don’t know how much I appreciate it.” Why is B.B. King an essential element in American music? Because he made the blues live forever.