Riley “Blues Boy” King
“Each note to me counts for something, you don’t play them just to play something”
(September 16, 1925 – For absolutely ever)
B.B. King is a century of Blues Music history, a century of guitar playing knowledge and a legendary artist who will not be left out of any conversation about the Blues. The prime among the three kings of the Blues, B.B. had created his unique recognizable tone, signature vibrato and an image of kind and loving gentleman which he most certainly is. After learning of and about BB King, one can only wish for the man who had been living with diabetes for over 20 years and performing over two hundred concerts a year, a great feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment.
Among other great things, B.B. King is one of the few Bluesmen left who was born on a Mississippi cotton plantation. The city of Indianola gave him most warm memories of home even though it may not have been the city of his birth. In his teens, B.B. had moved to West Memphis to find work and met Sonny Boy Williamson who at the time had to audition everyone who walked through the door. Young Riley King impressed Williamson and got himself a job as a disk jockey on a radio station calling himself a “Blues Boy” which later turned into BB.
King recollects buying his first acoustic guitar at the age of 12 from a man who wanted $15 for it while $15 was B.B.’s monthly wage. Fortunately for the whole Blues world, B.B.’s employer at the time, agreed to buy that guitar and take the cost out of his wages. Later, B.B. saw his first electric guitar played by his church’s pastor and began sneaking in to play with it when everyone else would go to eat. When he got caught, instead of scolding young Riley, the pastor taught him a few chords which B.B. recalled as probably the only guitar lesson he ever had.
By late 40’s, B.B. King had gotten his first record with an RPM label and had created his first Blues band. By early 50’s they were known and welcome across the globe, being booked intensively and topping the charts with many crossover hits. In 1970, B.B. King recorded “The Thrill is Gone”, probably his most known performance which was originally written by Roy Hawkins in 1951. The song received a Grammy and a spot on Rolling Stone top songs of all times.
Ever since then, BB King had been performing with every Blues guitar artist known to man and recording great songs, documentaries, master classes and teaching troubled youth to play guitar through his own fund.
The time began to show signs of fatigue from extensive decades of touring and in fall 2014 Mr. King fell ill during one of his concerts. After several months of rest, BB King was hospitalized with diabetes-related dehydration on April 2015 and once again the following May. On the 15th of May, 2015, the King of the Blues died peacefully in his sleep at his Las Vegas residency breaking the hearts of the music world, the world of the Blues and sending a shockwave across the globe. He is dearly missed.
When talking about Blues guitar, BB King’s “Lucille” is one of the most known example of friendship between an artist and his instrument. A custom made Gibson ES-335 was named after a lady who stirred a bar fight early in B.B. King’s career. The fight sparked a fire in the bar which had B.B.’s guitar still in it. King ran into the bar and saved his instrument, naming it after the girl who had put all of it in jeopardy.
Lucille is not a single instrument though. B.B. has many of the same custom made guitars that are all called Lucille and he continues to accumulate them regularly via new orders or presents. It seems that B.B. King favors Fender’s Twin Reverb amplifier and signature Gibson Electric Guitar Strings.
One can spend a lifetime attempting to share all of Mr. King’s great adventures and achievements. Not sure if there is need for another biography article. You can just watch “Life of Riley” and a couple other documentaries.
B.B. King to me, rightfully sits at the top of the Blues world at this moment and most other moments since he turned 15. Being both respected and admired by the young and old, B.B. shows sincere quality of the work which he does in each song he records. I personally did not begin my Blues journey with Mr. King’s works. I knew of him and I’ve heard a couple of songs but only after re-watching the 1990 Cosby Show episode (Not Everyone Loves the Blues) I said “Hey! That’s B.B. King!”. Being a big fan of Mr. Cosby, I listened to everything they both said on the episode and realized that it might have been a high time I got more into Mr. King’s art. That’s how I closed my B.B. gap and turned from knowing of him into a hearty fan having most respect for the man.
Throughout my guitar journey, I never attempted to imitate Mr. King’s style with the legato and melodic phrasing with combining both Blues and Jazz influence in his playing. However Mr. King is unique in my reasons for it. Some I don’t copy because they are not my style or preference. B.B. King, on the other hand is both to me but it is almost as if I treasure Mr. Kings playing and don’t want to insult him by attempting to make a cheap replica out of it.
When I’ve heard of Mr. King falling ill on stage, I was troubled, the kind of troubled when your life that you love and treasure is being taken away from you. It was felt and it was real worry which both made me happy and sad. I was glad to see sincere appreciation for the man who crossed the journey from the Delta to rural and made Blues popular. At the same time I felt saddened that I came to love the Blues at a point where shaking Mr. Kings hand and telling him how much love he had put in my heart might never be anything but a cherished dream.
Mr. King has opened my eyes and reinforced my hope that I am where I belong. Everyday I have the Blues because B.B. King had taught me how to have the Blues and most of all how to love it.