The Blues According to B.B. King
B.B. King, blues singer, songwriter and guitarist, sings the blues no more. He passed away in his Las Vegas home on Thursday, May 14, 2015. But his legacy lives on in the blues he loved, played, sang and promoted. This story is about the blues according to B.B. King.
Nobody could surpass King's way with the blues and as he said: "The blues is life, but it's sort of sad to think you have to be sad" to sing them. But then he remarked, "I think the blues are like a tonic," and added, "they're good for what ails you."
Riley B. King Is Born
Riley B. King was born on a cotton plantation, September 16, 1925 in Berclair, Mississippi to sharecropping parents Albert and Nora Ella King. At the age of 4, his mother left his father, and the boy was raised by his maternal grandmother, Elnora Farr in Kilmichael, Mississippi.
Growing up, he sang in a gospel choir in his community, and began his lifelong interest in the guitar at the age of 12. Some say his first guitar was a gift from Bukka White, his mother's cousin, whom he followed to Memphis, Tennessee. He began playing on the street for nickles and dimes. In the next few years he would develop his skill at playing the guitar. He would also begin to grow a faithful audience of his music who would continue to follow his blossoming career.
B.B. King Is Born
He gained his name "B.B. King," at WDIA, a Memphis radio station where he performed a 10-minute spot that became so popular it was expanded and became known as The Sepia Swing Club. He was initially called the "Beale Street blues boy," shortened to "blues boy," and eventually to B.B. While at the radio station he met T-Bone Walker, innovator and pioneer of the electric blues sound. B.B. was enthralled with the sound of the electric guitar, and said, "I knew I had to have one, short of stealing."
His recording career began in 1949 on RPM Records, many of which were produced by Sam Phillips of Sun Records (the same man who took a chance on recording Elvis Presley for the first time.) He eventually formed his own band, entertaining audiences across the United States with his unique talent and the blues. He helped raise the genre to new heights, taking it from juke joints and small clubs to Las Vegas lounges and stages around the world. He was becoming a legend in his own time.
Partial List of Awards
King played as the opening act for the 1969 Rolling Stones American Tour. He won a 1970 Grammy for "The Thrill Is Gone," which was a hit on both the pop and R&B charts. Inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 1980 and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987, he went on to be inducted into the Official Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame in 2014. The International Polar Music Prize was awarded to him in 2004, " in recognition of exceptional achievements in the creation and advancement of music."
Frank Sinatra was his favorite singer and King gave him credit for opening doors in Las Vegas lounges in the un-integrated 1960s. In his autobiography "Blues All Around Me," King tells about a Caesars Palace executive asking their star, Sinatra, if it was okay for King to play the lounge, and Sinatra answered, "Hell yes!" King said, "not just 'yes' but 'Hell yes'. That meant a lot to me." In his autobiography King says he went to sleep every night listening to Sinatra's recording of "In The Wee Small Hours."
How "Lucille" Came To Be Named
If you know anything at all about B.B.King, you know he names his guitars "Lucille." Why was it always that name? Here's the story: In 1949 a common practice to heat dance halls and clubs was a burning barrel of kerosene. In one such establishment in Arkansas a fight broke out between two men during which the barrel was knocked over. This sent blazing kerosene flooding the floor, catching it on fire, and the hall was then evacuated. Once outside, King realized he'd left his $30 guitar inside and he ran back into the burning building to retrieve it. Making his way safely back outside, guitar in hand, he was glad to be alive. Two men actually died in the fire. Later, he heard that the two men were fighting over a woman named Lucille. He named that guitar and subsequent editions "Lucille" to remind himself never to be so stupid as to fight over women or run INTO a burning building! He wrote a song named "Lucille" which tells the story and is included in his album B.B. King Anthology 1962-1998. In 1980 the Gibson Guitar Company introduced the B.B.King Lucille Model Guitar. The difference between the Lucille and the earlier model on which it is based is that it bears "Lucille" in script on the headstock, has a maplewood neck and lacks F holes on the top, at King's request, to reduce feedback.
"When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille." - B.B. King
B.B. King Plays His "Lucille" and sings her story in this video.
Goodbye B.B. King, Not Goodbye To Your Music
In 1991 B.B. King's Blues Club opened on Beale Street in Memphis, TN, a second club in 1994 in Universal City Walk in California, and a third in New York City's Times Square in 2000. Since then there have been five other clubs opened, one in Foxwood Casino in Connecticut in 2002, one in Nashville, TN in 2003, one in Orlando FL in 2007 and one in the Mirage Hotel Las Vegas in 2009. Blues had made it big time and so had B.B. King, a sharecropper's son, singing the tunes that were "good for what ails you."
RIP B. B. King 5/14/2015