The King of the Blues

A man who married twice, had fifteen children and supported them all, became a mega star of his genre yet still, by all accounts is a pleasant and extraordinarily modest man. Mick Brown of the Telegraph described him as a ‘kind man in an unkind business’. The world knows him as B.B. King. B.B. King was born, like many blues legends, in Mississippi, specifically near the town of Ita Bena, where he grew up cared for by his grandmother. His first job was picking cotton in the fields for the princely sum of 35 cents per hundred, but he realised that skill would get him more money and at 16 progressed to tractor driver. The wage? $22 a week.

Riley B King (his actual name) also sang in the church choir, and so at weekends he supplemented his income by playing guitar and singing on street corners. It didn’t take long to realise that he made more money singing blues than anything else, and so his career began. After some time in the army Riley moved to Memphis in 1948 and got a job making fuel tanks. He composed a jingle for Pepticon health tonic, the sponsor of a radio show on station WDIA, and found himself with a regular radio spot where he used the name the ‘Beale Street Blues Boy’ later shortened to B.B.

From 1949 onwards he made records and performed, but despite achieving a degree of fame his records earned him very little. He gradually built a band (the B.B. King Review) and travelled in a bus known as ‘big red’ all over the USA. In 1956 he played 342 one night stands. In 1958 ‘big red’ collided with a gas truck and was completely destroyed by fire. Unfortunately the insurance had expired that weekend, leaving him with over 100,000 in debts, a sum which took many years to pay off.

Black audiences began to turn away from the blues in the late fifties and as his fans aged his audience began to dwindle, but his album ‘Live At the Regal’ was well received on both sides of the Atlantic and he found new fame amongst rock fans. In 1967 he performed for his first white audience in San Fransciso and a short while after his fortunes began to improve dramatically when he hired his erstwhile accountant, Sid Seidenberg, to be his manager. Under Seidenberg’s guidance he made his first TV appearance and later in 1969 opened 18 concerts for the Rolling Stones. Also in 1969 he recorded a blues song by Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins called ‘The Thrill is Gone’ which earned him a Grammy award for Best Male R&B Vocal performance. His version of the song is number 183 in Rolling Stone magazines ‘500 greatest songs ever’.

Having learned to fly in 1965, BB King flew himself to many of his concerts in the USA, but in the 1970’s he began to tour the world and his fame grew. No more small clubs or jazz halls, he performed in large concert halls and travelled to Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and Australia. In 1988 he made ‘When Love Comes to Town’ with U2 and in 2000 made an album, Riding With The King, with Eric Clapton.

After fifty albums, fifteen Grammy awards, induction into the Blues Foundation, Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of fame, two honorary doctorates in Music and two presidential medals (1990 and 2006) no-one can deny BB Kings position as the King of the Blues, but his song goes on. His latest Grammy award was in 2008, for the album ‘One Kind Favor’.