Today the world woke-up to the very sad news that the legend known as BB King passed away. We could say “The Thrill Is Gone” – may he rest in peace. The greatest blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose birth name is Riley B. King. He took the stage name of BB King from a name he used in his early career when he was called Blue Boy King; it was shortened to BB King.
His legacy is profound being ranked at Number 1 by Rolling Stone Magazine on its 2011 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. He was also ranked Number 17 on Gibson’s “Top 50 Guitarists of All Time”. In addition, King was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bush and in 2006; he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom also from President Bush. He holds the most GRAMMY wins in the blues genre with fifteen.
King was also honored with a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and inducted into 2014 class of the R&B Music Hall of Fame. He is considered the most influential blues musicians of all time. He earned the nickname “The King of Blues”, and one of the “Three Kings of the Blues Guitar” along with Albert King and Freddie King. He was also known for performing tirelessly throughout his musical career, appearing at more than 200 concerts per year on average into his 70s. In 1956, he reportedly appeared at 342 shows.
Riley B. King was born on a cotton plantation near the town of Itta Bena, Mississippi, the son of sharecroppers, but he considered the nearby city of Indianola, Mississippi to be his home. When Riley was four years old, his mother left his father for another man, and the boy was raised by his maternal grandmother.
While young, King sang in the gospel choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kilmichael. It seems that at the age of 12, he purchased his first guitar for $15.00. However, although another source indicates he was given his first guitar by Bukka White, his mother’s first cousin who was King’s grandmother and White’s mother were sisters. In 1943, King left Kilmichael to work as a tractor driver and play guitar with the Famous St. John’s Quartet performing at area churches and on radio programs.
In 1949, King began recording songs under contract with Los Angeles-based RPM Records. Many of King’s early recordings were produced by Sam Phillips, who later founded Sun Records. Before his RPM contract, King had debuted on a small label issuing the single “Miss Martha King” (1949), which did not chart well. “My very first recordings [in 1949] were for a company out of Nashville called Bullet, the Bullet Record Transcription company,” King recalled.
King is famously known for performing with his famous guitar Lucille. During a performance, two men began to fight, knocking over the burning barrel and sending burning fuel across the floor. The hall burst into flames, and the building was evacuated. Once outside, King realized that he had left his guitar inside, so he went back into the burning building to retrieve his beloved $30 Gibson guitar. The two men died in the fire, and King learned the next day that they had been fighting over a woman named Lucille. King subsequently named that first guitar Lucille, as well as every guitar he has owned since, as a reminder never again to do something as stupid as run into a burning building or fight over women.
From the 1980s to his death in 2015, he maintained a highly visible and active career, appearing on numerous television shows and performing 300 nights a year. He has recorded over fifty albums. Remarkably over his long and illustrious career he continued to reach new generations of fans. There are few people in the music business or for that matter and field to sustain such longevity. Rest In Peace to you and Lucille! And that’s my thought provoking perspective…