Riley B. King was born on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a small town near Indianola, Mississippi. Alfred and Nora Ella King were his parents. He bought his first guitar when he was 12 years old. He paid $15.00 for it. He left Indianola to work as a tractor driver when he was 18.
King lived with his cousin in Memphis Tennessee for ten months in 1946. He returned to Mississippi for two years, and then went back to Memphis. He took a job at the local R&B radio station WDIA as a singer and disc jockey. This is where he gained the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy”, which later was shortened to B B.
In 1948, King performed on a radio program on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas. He developed an audience for his unique sound. He soon had steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis. This turned into a ten minute spot on the legendary Memphis radio station WDIA, called “King’s Spot”. It became so popular; it was expanded and called the “Sepia Swing Club”.
King started recording songs in 1949 under contract with RPM Records. It was also in 1949 that King and his group “B B King Review” was playing a dance hall in Twist Arkansas. A half filled barrel of kerosene was lit to provide heat for the dance hall. A fight broke out, and the barrel was knocked over, engulfing the building with fire. King ran outside to escape the flames, only to realize he left his $30. guitar inside. He entered the burning building and retrieved the guitar. The next day, he learned that the two men were fighting over a woman named Lucille. He then dubbed his guitar “Lucille”, and from that day, every guitar he has ever owned has been called Lucille. This always served as a reminder to never again do something stupid like run into a burning building, or fight over a woman. Two people died in that fire.
In 1956, King performed 342 concerts. The same year, he established his own record label called Blues Boys Kingdom. King was soon one of the most important names in R&B music. He amassed a list of hits in the 1950s, including, “Please Love Me”, “Whole Lotta Love”, “Ten Long Years”, “Every Day I Have The Blues”, “Sneakin’ Around”, and others. In 1962, King signed with ABC Paramount Records. In 1964, he recorded “Live at the Regal” album at the Regal Theater in Chicago Illinois.
A tune called “The Thrill Is Gone” gained King a Grammy Award. His version became a hit on pop and R&B charts. He also gained a spot on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Even the country music and rock music fans were impressed with the unique sound of B B King. With the well earned popularity in all the music fields, King maintained continued success throughout the 1970s.
In 1980 King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was awarded the international Polar Music Prize, which is given to artists “in recognition of exceptional achievements in the creation and advancement of music”.
B B King continued to maintain a very active career through the 1980s. He appeared on many television shows and performed 300 nights a year. In 1988, he did a single “When Love Comes to Town”, collaboration with the Irish band U2, on one of their albums.
In 1998 King appeared in The Blues Brothers 2000 playing the part of a lead singer of the Louisiana Gator Boys, along with Clapton and Bo Diddley.
In March 2006, at 80 years old, King played at Hallam Arena in Sheffield England. This was the first date of his UK and European farewell tour. After the farewell tour, King was questioned why he was embarking on another tour after the farewell tour was done. He jokingly said that he had never actually said the farewell tour would be his last.
King returned to Europe to play in the 40th edition of the Montreux Jazz Festival and the Zurich at the Blues at Sunset.
In 2006 King attended a memorial of his first radio broadcast at the Three Deuces Building in Greenwood Mississippi. In 2008, a museum dedicated to King was opened in Indianola, Mississippi.
His first live recording in 14 years was in 2006. He recorded a concert CD and DVD called “B B King: Live at his B B King Blues Clubs in Nashville and Memphis. The production lasted four nights, and featured his regular B B King Blues Band.
King played in Chicago at Eric Clapton’s second Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2007. There were 20 other guitarists involved in the festival raising money for the Crossroads Centre for addictive disorders. Parts of the performance were aired in a PBS broadcast and released on the Crossroads II DVD.
In 2008, King played at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester TN. At the 25th annual Chicago Blues Festival, he was the final performer. Another event in 2008 was the Monterey Blues Festival, where King also performed. King was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame in June of 2008 alongside Liza Minnelli and Sir James Galway.
King performed at the Maryland Theater in Hagerstown Maryland in December 2008. He was the closing act at the 51st Grammy Nomination Concert in the same year. Only a few days later, King played at The Kennedy Center Honors Awards Show. His performance was in honor of actor Morgan Freeman.
King started another European Tour with concerts in France, Germany, and Denmark in the summer of 2009. King also performed at the Mawazine festival in Rabat, Morocco, in May of 2010.
Over a period of 52 years, B B King has played in excess of 15,000 performances. In 2001, King signed on as an official supporter of Little Kids Rock, an organization that provides free musical instruments and instruction to children in under served public schools in the US.
B B King has made guest appearances in many popular television shows including The Cosby Show, The Young and the Restless, General Hospital, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Sesame Street, and others.
King is an active spokesman in the fight against Type II diabetes, as he has lived with the disease for over twenty years.
King was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. As of 2009, King has 15 Grammy Awards to his credit. Ten have been the Grammy award for Best Traditional Blues Album in 2009, 2005, 2003, 2001, 2000, 1994, 1992, 1991, 1986, and 1984. In 1982, He won the Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.
In 1997, he won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance (with other artists). In 1971, he won the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. A Grammy Hall of Fame Award was given to “The Thrill is Gone” in 1998.
B.B. King introduced a sophisticated style of string bending and shimmering vibrato that influenced every electric blues guitarist to follow. His unique voice and love of the blues only enhanced his performances. This American blues guitarist, singer-songwriter is highly acclaimed for his expressive style. This wonderful talented man has traveled many miles since he left his little hometown of Indianola, Mississippi. He has given much to the blues world, the rock world, and yes, even the country music world.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at #3 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.