B.B. King is one of those names one would recognize even if you aren’t a fan of the blues. After all, he’s won numerous Grammy awards, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and recorded several unforgettable tracks, not the least his 1969 hit “The Thrill is Gone.” In fact, even non-blues fans recognize the name Lucille – that’s B.B. King’s signature black Gibson guitar that is as much a part of his legacy as his seven decades of recorded material. And it goes without saying that his string-bending technique has influenced future generations of blues and rock and roll guitarists.
Riley B. King was born to Albert (no relation to the bluesman of the same name) and Nora King on September 16, 1925, in Itta Bena, Mississippi. He spent his early life under his grandmother’s watchful eye, and developed a love for music early on in life. He sang in the church choir and started playing guitar at the age of 12. Fellow Delta bluesman Bukka White was King’s cousin, and it was through him that he learned the nuances of blues guitar. He earned his nickname following a stint at Memphis-based radio station WDIA, where he hosted his own ten-minute program, King’s Spot. King was originally dubbed the Beale Street Blues Boy, which was shortened to Blues Boy, then finally to the nickname we all recognize to this very day – B.B. As for Lucille, King had forgotten his $30 Gibson electric guitar inside a burning dance hall in Arkansas, and a day after he retrieved his precious axe, he learned that the fire was started by two men fighting over a woman named Lucille.
As a recording artist and performer, King was prolific right from the get-go, starting in 1949 with Nashville record label Bullet. The next two decades would see King play venues across the United States, from big-name theaters in the major cities to small-town juke joints. King was so prolific as a live performer that he played an astonishing 342 gigs in 1956! As for his recorded material, King released countless albums and singles between 1949 and 1969, topping the R&B singles charts with “3 O’Clock Blues” (1951), “Please Love Me” (1953) and “You Upset Me” (1954). However, it was the song “The Thrill is Gone” that gave King his biggest success ever. Released in December 1969, “The Thrill is Gone” peaked at #3 on the R&B charts, but was most notable for reaching #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 Pop singles charts early in 1970.
The ‘70s and ‘80s would see King finally accepted by the mainstream music world, as the hits and albums kept coming. And age would prove not to be a hindrance to King, as he continued spending most days of the year performing. King would ostensibly embark on his “farewell tour” of Europe in 2006, but it wasn’t long before he returned as an active performer. Though not as active as he was as a younger man, King has most recently made appearances at the 2011 Glastonbury Music Festival and embarked on yet another tour of Europe. Who knows when B.B. King will finally hang Lucille up, enjoy retirement and look back on all those decades of great music with a smile on his face? By the looks of it, the King of the Blues doesn’t plan to retire his throne anytime soon.