Friday, 15 May 2015

The Late Great B. B. King

As many of you already know, my sister is 17 years older than me. One of the advantages of having a sibling so much older than myself was that I was introduced to music that I might not otherwise have been under different circumstances. Among the works of music talents to which my sister introduced me was the oeuvre of the great B. B. King. In fact, I think it is quite possible that B. B. King my have been her favourite music artist of all time. And it would be the music of B. B. King that would introduce me to the whole world of blues. Discounting rock stars who were heavily influenced by the blues (such as The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin), B. B. King was the first true blues artist I ever listened to. If I had not been introduced to B. B. King, I might never have known of John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, or Robert Johnson. Throughout it all, however, B. B. King remained my favourite. Sadly, B. B King died yesterday, May 14 2015, at the age of 89. The cause was a series of strokes due to Type 2 diabetes.

B. B. King was born Riley Ben King on September 16 1925 on a cotton plantation named Berclair near Itta Bena, Mississippi. He always considered the nearby town of Indianola, Mississippi to be his hometown. When he was four years old his mother left his father, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother in  Kilmichael, Mississippi. As a child he sang in the choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church in the town. It is unclear how Mr. King obtained his first guitar. Some sources say he bought his first guitar at age 12. Other sources say that he was given his first guitar by legendary blues guitarist Bukka White, who happened to be his mother's first cousin. Regardless, Mr. King took up playing guitar at a young age. It was in November 1941 that King Biscuit Time debuted on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. The legendary programme, which is still on the air,  featured the  blues artists Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood, Jr.  The show gave young Mr. King what would be the direction for the rest of his life.

B. B. King served very briefly in the United States Army during World War II. He was released from the Army not long after basic training because he worked in an industry essential to the war effort, farming. He reconnected with his cousin Bukka White, who further taught him how to play blues guitar. He received his big break when he appeared on Sonny Boy Williamson's radio show on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1948. His appearance on the show led to regular engagements at the the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis and then a ten minute show on Memphis, Tennessee radio station WDIA. It was there that he earned the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy", which was later shortened to "Blues Boy" and then to "B. B."

It was in 1949 that B. B. King began recording. His first single was  "Miss Martha King" for a small recording company named Bullet.  It was not long afterwards that he began recording for Los Angeles company RPM Records. His first single on RPM was "Mistreated Woman". As might be expected of a recording artist, B. B. King toured the country, playing both major theatres and smaller clubs. It was at a performance in Twist, Arkansas that a fight broke out and a kerosene stove was knocked over. The building was soon on fire. B. B. King fled the building, only to realise he had left his guitar inside. He rushed inside to retrieve the instrument, only narrowing escaping with his life. The fight was over a woman named "Lucille". Thereafter B. B. King named his guitar and every subsequent guitar "Lucille" so as to remind him never again to rush into a burning building.

B. B. King's first hit would come in 1951, his version of "3 O' Clock Blues". It went to #1 on the Billboard  Rhythm and Blues chart. During the Fifties Mr. King had several more hits. He hit no. 1 on the  Rhythm and Blues chart again with the songs "You Know I Love You" (1952), "Please Love Me" (1953), and  "You Upset Me Baby" (1954). He would also have hits with such songs as "Story from My Heart and Soul", "Woke Up This Morning", "When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer", "Every Day I Have the Blues", "Ten Long Years", "Please Accept My Love", and "Sweet Sixteen, Pt. I".  His first album was Singin' the Blues in 1956. Throughout his career Mr. King would record over forty studio albums.

The Sixties would see B. B. King release more successful singles. What is more, several of his singles would enter the Billboard Hot 100, although only a few would reach the top forty. "The Thrill Is Gone", released in 1970, would be his biggest hit. It reached #3 on the Billboard R&B chart and reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100. His 1964 single "Rock Me Baby" reached #12 on the R&B chart and #34 on the Hot 100. Among his other singles to reach the Hot 100 were "How Blue Can You Get", "Beautician Blues", "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss", "So Excited", "Hummingbird", "Ask Me No Questions", and "Chains and Things". He toured as the opening act for The Rolling Stones on their 1969 tour.

The Seventies saw B. B. King continue to hit both the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart and the Billboard Hot 100 regularly. His 1973 single "To Know You Is to Love You" went to #38 on the Hot 100 while his 1974 single "I Like to Live the Love" went to #28. Every album he released throughout the decade made the Billboard album chart. He maintained a busy schedule throughout the decade, not only recording, but also performing several dates a year and appearing regularly on television.

After 1979 Mr. King's recoding schedule slowed a bit. He would only release a few more singles, with "Riding with the King" (with Eric Clapton) in 2000 being his last. He did release several more studio albums: five in the Eighties, eight in the Nineties, and four in the Naughts. His last album was One Kind Favour in 2008. In 2006 B. B. King went on a farewell tour of the world, although he would continue to perform very nearly until his death. He played at Eric Clapton's second Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2007; the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee;  the Glastonbury Music Festival in 2011, and several other music festivals and concerts. On October 3 2014 he could not continue with his performance at the House of Blues in Chicago. He was diagnosed as suffering from dehydration and exhaustion, and the eight remaining dates of his tour were cancelled.

It is quite possible that B. B. King was the most famous bluesman of all time. Those unfamiliar with blues might not recognise the names of such legends as Blind Lemon Jefferson or Willie Brown, but they knew who B. B. King was. And there was little wonder that B. B. King should become so well known. There was no other blues musician, let alone any musician in any other genre, quite like him. His style was certainly distinctive, using such techniques as vibrato and bent strings to make his guitar (always named "Lucille") to sound like something human. He brought a feeling to his music that few others did, even in a genre as well known for evoking emotion as blues.

B. B. King would prove a profound influence not only on other blues musicians, but on entire generations of rock performers. Such diverse rock stars as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, among many others, were influenced by B. B. King. In the end B. B. King would prove to be among the most influential bluesmen of all time. There should be little wonder given the magnitude of his talent and the sheer length of his career.

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