He's been king of the blues for something in the neighborhood of a half century now, his exquisitely sculpted lead guitar and fiery, gospel-rooted vocals standing skyscraper-tall as a role model for countless bluesmen to follow (including a couple who even shared his royal surname). And as he continues to magnanimously rack up Grammys and tour the globe non-stop, B.B. King exhibits no inclination whatsoever to relinquish his crown.
"I'm doing what I feel. I'm doing what I enjoy. I was doing that when I made '3 O'Clock Blues,' so I'll continue," vowed King in 1985, referring to the breakthrough R&B chart-topper that catapulted him from the Memphis blues scene to the national touring circuit in 1952. And that proud declaration has yet to be altered.
"If you call doin' what I'm doin' now still on the top, I guess I would have to say it's due to the fact I've got some very talented musicians with me. I've got a good agency, good public
relations, and a good manager," said the perpetually humble B.B., making sure to credit everyone else in his immediate orbit before stating the oh-so-obvious: "And a little talent."
From 1950 to 1962, B.B. recorded more or less exclusively for the Bihari brothers' Los Angeles-based family of labels, starting out on their RPM logo and ending up on Kent. Those dozen years of prolific recording, first in Memphis and later primarily in L.A., produced the bedrock foundation of King's regal legacy. Many of the songs that he'll forever be associated with were definitively committed to posterity during that crucial timespan, when B.B. was refining his immaculate guitar technique to a razor-sharp edge.
Echoes of his idols-electric blues guitar pioneer T-Bone Walker, pre-war greats Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, jazz innovators Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt -could be identified in his crisp, concise attack, but B.B. created a sound all his own that would be copied by countless disciples without their ever quite nailing the impeccable ringing tone that King seems to achieve so effortlessly.
Like so many of his blues-singing contemporaries, Riley B. King is a product of the fertile Mississippi Delta. Born outside the small village of Itta Bena on September 16, 1925, the lad was fascinated by local preacher Archie Fair's guitar, and at age seven learned his first chords. His aunt's 78 collection introduced him to the blues, and his cousin, slide guitarist Bukka White, offered him first-hand tuition. But blues wasn't his only interest.
"I grew up in Mississippi," said King. "And when I was growing up in Mississippi, country music was very prominent in the area where I grew up. So usually, you had country music that most of the whites sang and a few blacks, and we had blues that mostly blacks sang and a few whites. But everybody sang gospel. Jazz was just beginning to sneak in.
"I'm self-taught. I never had a teacher, other than books that I've bought and studied. I listened to records of other people, or listened to other people play," said King. "When I was trying to learn to read music, the books that I would buy had country songs in them. So I would learn to read music, I learned songs like 'You Are My Sunshine' and 'My Darling Clementine.' These were the songs that they had the musical notation on, for you to learn to read. So I knew that long before I could even write a note of '3 O'Clock Blues.'
Picking cotton and backbreaking farm chores wouldn't hold King's attention forever. After he accidentally wrecked a tractor on an Indianola plantation, King hightailed it to Memphis and headed straight for Beale Street. He stuck around for eight months before heading home to make amends. But the bright lights of Memphis now burned deep in his soul, and in late 1948 he split the plantation again, this time for good. He worked up the nerve to visit veteran harpist Sonny Boy Williamson at the West Memphis, Arkansas studios of KWEM, singing a number on his radio program. An impressed Sonny Boy dispatched the eager youth to play one of the two gigs he'd inadvertently booked for that evening. Miss Annie, the operator of the juke joint, instructed King to follow in Sonny Boy's broadcasting footsteps.
"I needed a job playing at one of the clubs," said B.B. in 1979. "The club owners kind of forced me into radio, because they said if I was on the air, I would be able to advertise the place that I was playing like some of the other local dudes was doing at the time." So King set out for WDIA, the pioneering radio station serving Memphis' black community. Walking 20 blocks in the rain with no case to keep his guitar dry, King auditioned for WDIA co-owner Bert Ferguson, who gave him a 10-minute afternoon slot sponsored by the alcohol-based elixir Peptikon.
"When I went and applied for a job at the station, just as a musician playing, they gave me a job that very day, playing by myself--kind of folk-guitar style," said B.B. "About two months later, my program was very, very popular, so I started a trio then. And at that time, one of the disc jockeys left the station. When the disc jockey left the station, they started saying, 'Be a disc jockey!' That's how it came about." As he built an audience playing his guitar and spinning records over WDIA, Riley B. King was initially billed as the Beale Street Blues Boy, a moniker progressively shortened to Blues Boy, then Bee Bee, and finally B.B.
A potentially fatal incident in 1949 caused B.B. to name all his guitars after one dangerous lady. "Twist, Arkansas, geographically speaking, is about 45 miles northwest of Memphis, Tennessee," he explained. "We used to play there every Friday and Saturday night. Sundays, too, if it rained, because if it rained, people didn't have to go to work the next day. Twist is a little plantation town. In the winter, it got pretty cold there. So they used to use something that looked like a large garbage pail. They'd half-fill it with kerosene. They would light the kerosene, and that's what we'd use for heat in the winter. The people that were used to coming there would usually dance around it and never disturb it. But this particular night, two guys started to fightin'. One of 'em knocked the other one over on this container. When they did, it spilled over the floor.
"It was already burning, so it looked like a river of fire. So everybody started running for the front door, including myself. But when I got on the outside, I remembered then that I'd ran off and left my guitar. So I went back for it. And when I did, the building started to fall in on me. So I almost lost my life trying to save it. The next morning, two men we found had gotten burned to death there. Also we found that the two guys that was fightin' was fightin' about a lady. I never did meet her, but we learned that she was the cook, and her name was Lucille. So I named my guitar Lucille to remind me never to do a silly thing like that again. I usually say you can get another guitar, but you can't get another B.B. King."
Through WDIA boss Bert Ferguson, King made his first recordings for the Nashville-based Bullet label. His debut platter, "Miss Martha King," was written about his young wife. The two Bullet 78s didn't sell, but B.B. put together his own band, The Blues Boys, usually including pianist Johnny Ace, drummer Earl Forest, and saxist Richard Sanders, to play area roadhouses. The Bihari brothers heard about King and signed him to RPM, sending him to Sam Phillips' fledgling Memphis Recording Service in the summer of 1950 to lay down four sides that included the vicious rocker "B.B. Boogie."
"He recorded many of the people like Howlin' Wolf and many other guys for different labels, because he was the only person that had a studio," noted King. "In fact, his studio was one of the first that I ever saw that was an actual studio." B.B. cut more material at Phillips' facility the next year, but the Biharis were feuding with Sam over his providing rival Chess Records with Jackie Brenston's smash "Rocket '88'" and the rights to newcomers Howlin' Wolf and Rosco Gordon, so an alternate site to set up a tape recorder was a necessity for a date in the fall of 1951.
"The Bihari brothers, the ones that I recorded for, when they would come in town, usually they would bring portable equipment," said B.B. "Things like that. They would set them up in any vacant place that we could find. In fact, when we made '3 O'Clock Blues,' we made it at the YMCA."
Guitarist Lowell Fulson premiered "3 O'Clock Blues," enjoying a national hit with the downbeat ode in 1948, but King's dirgelike remake, with Forest, either Ace or Ike Turner on piano, and saxists Sanders and Billy Duncan in support, blasted to the top of the R&B hit parade in February of '52. Its national success necessitated some cutbacks in King's local availability (he would relinquish his 'DIA airshift the next year due to his expanded touring itinerary).
"When '3 O'Clock Blues' became a hit and I started to work out of a booking agency," said King, "they didn't want me to have a band. They wanted me alone. So I left the band. And when I did, I gave it to Johnny Ace. That's when he changed it. Instead of calling it the Blues Boys as it had been, he started calling it the Beale Streeters."
Recorded at bassist Tuff Green's house, the creamy blues ballad "You Know I Love You" was B.B.'s second R&B chart-topper that November and ensured King would be on the road for some time to come, so he recruited saxist Bill Harvey's band for expert backup. Memphis was no longer B.B.'s recording home. With Harvey's crew swinging behind him, King cut his two biggest selling hits of 1953 at Houston's ACA Studios. The #3 smash "Woke Up This Morning" crackled with horn-fueled electricity, its tempo alternating between a saucy Latin sway and a torrid jump groove. King replicated Elmore James' ringing slide attack without benefit of a bottleneck on the relentless "Please Love Me," a number one R&B smash in July. A Cincinnati studio stopover generated his storming "Please Hurry Home," a #4 hit that fall.
From 1954 on, King did the bulk of his recording in Los Angeles, Modern/RPM's homebase, with tenor saxist Maxwell Davis--provider of wailing solos to scads of West Coast R&B hits--his primary arranger, as he was for many of the label's acts. Though B.B. assembled his own expansive band mid-decade, Davis utilized the city's top R&B session aces for King's studio dates. The anguished "When My Heart Beats Like A Hammer" was a #8 smash that fall, and B.B. enjoyed another R&B chart-topper near the end of '54 with the coy swinger "You Upset Me Baby." Its blasting flip "Whole Lotta' Love" was a sizable hit in its own right.
Then King took on a song that had already been a hit twice and made it his own. "Every Day I Have The Blues" had debuted in 1948 as "Nobody Loves Me" when its composer, towering pianist Memphis Slim, waxed it for Miracle. Fulson recognized the tune's potential, changed its title, and had a 1950 smash on the Swing Time logo. Chicago shouter Joe Williams weighed in with an uptown reading for Checker that was a '52 sensation. Only six months after King's impeccably swinging treatment of "Every Day" went to #8 R&B in early '55, Williams roared the same resilient refrain in front of Count Basie's orchestra and just missed pacing the R&B hit parade. Still, "Every Day" endures as one of B.B.'s signature songs to this day. Its opposite side, the gorgeous blues ballad "Sneakin' Around," was written by the prolific Jessie Mae Robinson and was crooner Rudy Render's only hit back in '49. Once again, B.B. instantly made it his own, meshing beautifully with the doo-woppish vocal group backing.
"We was movin' then. We had the hammer down then," said B.B. "When we made 'Every Day I Have The Blues,' we were big guns then." Indeed, King's band was traversing the country's highways and byways in a customized bus as B.B. piloted a pink Cadillac and averaged more than 300 engagements a year.
King's commitment to the blues didn't waver when the rock and roll era exploded. "Ten Long Years" closed out 1955 for him in chart-cracking style, and King cruised along with the two-sided hit "Bad Luck" and "Sweet Little Angel" in the autumn of '56. Both were reclamation projects, the former done at a far more leisurely pace in 1946 by pianist Ivory Joe Hunter as "Bad Luck Blues" and the latter introduced by earthy blueswoman Lucille Bogan in 1930, covered by kazoo-toting Chicago bluesman Tampa Red in 1934 and revived by his fellow slide guitar ace Robert Nighthawk in 1949 (all as "Black Angel Blues") before King granted it wider appeal.
Truth be told, the combined seismic impact of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino did blunt King's momentum a bit. "Troubles, Troubles, Troubles" made a sizable chart impression in 1957, the same year his rocking "Be Careful With A Fool" made a surprising one-week bow on the pop hit parade (marking King's first taste of crossover success). The gently rolling blues ballad "Please Accept My Love"-a cover of Jimmy Wilson's single for Louisiana-based Goldband Records and written by blues guitarist Clarence Garlow-was King's top seller for '58. It marked B.B.'s first hit on the Biharis' freshly minted Kent logo, RPM having recently been phased out. He went hitless altogether in 1959.
The Biharis had an open-door policy where King was concerned. "I knew everybody there. I could talk with everybody," he noted. "Anytime I wanted to talk to anybody, you could just walk up and see them." King roared back at the dawn of the new decade with a blistering two-sided revival of Big Joe Turner's '52 Atlantic Records hit "Sweet Sixteen," part one rocketing to #2 on Billboard's R&B hit parade as Maxwell Davis maintained his studio presence. The jaunty "Got A Right To Love My Baby" was quite successful later that year.
Hurt by seeing his freshly recorded albums pressed on the cheap and going for 99 cents when his peers' LPs were granted first-class treatment, King left the Biharis for the more lucrative confines of ABC-Paramount Records in 1962. But Kent had amassed quite a stockpile of masters, and the label kept issuing product in direct competition with King's ABC offerings. The strategy clicked for Kent in 1964 when B.B.'s nails-tough modernization of "Rock Me Baby," its direct inspiration guitarist Lil' Son Jackson's '51 country blues classic "Rockin' And Rollin'," translated into a #34 pop hit for B.B. in the spring of 1964, his stinging arrangement indelibly establishing the number as a blues standard of the first order forevermore.
Fast forward nearly four decades, and the list of international accolades for B.B. King now appears infinite. His stately violin-enriched treatment of blues pianist Roy Hawkins' obscure "The Thrill Is Gone" permanently brought him into the mainstream in 1970. "We had started to be recognized somewhat by pop audiences before that," he said. "But when we made 'The Thrill,' that just really opened the door." Today, you're just as liable to encounter B.B. as a respected TV commercial spokesman as making magic onstage with his main squeeze Lucille.
One thing's for sure: the thrill isn't gone for the king of the blues. "Each time I do an album, I enjoy it more and think that I'm doing the best that I can do at that time," he said. "And I usually like it, because it's the newest one. Then when I get another one, then I like that one, because it's the latest one. I've never made an album that I think that everything on it, that every time I listen to it, I enjoy as much. But I've never made one that I didn't have some cuts in it that I thought was very good, that have withstood the storms through the years."
These classic performances will withstand for centuries. Long live the king!