Throughout the 1990's as well as the 1980's, 1970's, 1960's and 1950's, there has been only one King of the Blues - Riley B. King, affectionately known as B.B. King. Since B.B. started recording in the late 1940's, he has released over 5O albums -- many of them considered blues classics, like 1965's definitive live blues album "Live At The Regal," and 1976's collaboration with Bobby "Blue" Bland, "Together for The First Time." Over the years, B.B. has had two number one R&B hits, 1951's "Three O'Clock Blues," and 1952's "You Don't Know Me," and four number two R&B hits, 1953's "Please Love Me," and 1954's "You Upset Me Baby," 1960's "Sweet Sixteen, Part I," and 1966's "Don't Answer The Door, Part I." B.B.'s most popular crossover hit, 1970's "The Thrill Is Gone," went to #15 pop. But B.B. King, as well as the entire blues genre, is not radio oriented. His classic songs such as "Payin' The Cost To Be The Boss," "Caldonia," "How Blue Can You Get," "Everyday I Have The Blues," and "Why I Sing The Blues" are concert (and fan) staples.
The year was 1925 ... In the area of Mississippi known as the "Delta", a baby was born on September 16 in a small sharecropper's cabin near the town of Itta Bena. The proud parents of the newborn baby boy were Albert and Nora Ella King, hardworking sharecropping farmers who had lived in Mississippi all of their lives. The boy was named Riley B. King, after his uncle, the only known living kin of Albert King. It should be noted here that B.B. King's father, Albert King, was NOT the great bluesman from Indianola, Mississippi. Although the now dearly departed bluesman named Albert King grew up in the same area of the Delta as B.B. King did, they were not related.
Young Riley King never knew his uncle for whom he had been named after. When Albert King was very young, his father had left his mother and vanished into parts unknown. Not long after his father had left, Albert's mother and only sister died, leaving him with his older brother. For reasons unknown, his brother had left young Albert to be raised by a sharecropper named Love. When Albert was 7 years old, he learned that his brother was in a Texas prison, and that was the last he had ever heard of him. In an interview with Albert King in 1978, he says of his son, "I call B.B. my baby brother 'cause we're only eighteen years apart. I call him B.B. like everybody else, but his real name is 'Riley.' Now he's got them two B's up front of his name." *
Nora Ella King left Albert King for another man when Riley was only 4 years old. She moved back into the hills east of the Delta and sent Riley to live in nearby Kilmicheal with his maternal grandmother, Elnora Farr. Riley's father Albert did not interfere, and lost touch with his wife and son. Riley lived off and on with his mother and two subsequent step fathers, but most of the time he stayed with his grandmother, who sharecropped on the land of Edwayne Henderson, a dairy farmer.
Riley's mother and grandmother were both very religious and he attended services with them at the Holiness Church in Kilmicheal. It was here at church where young Riley had his first true musical influence. The preacher, Archie Fair, who was the brother-in-law of Riley's maternal uncle William Pullinan, was an important musical inspiration to Riley. Music was the main tool used by Archie Fair to bring the congregation together as one. Riley's dominant singing style with the congregation helped to develop his powerful charismatic influence for his future audiences. Archie Fair led the congregation by playing guitar. Riley was fascinated with the preacher's guitar and Archie taught him how to play the E, A and B chords.
Riley's mother died in the summer of 1935, when he was only 9 years old. He then lived with his grandmother in Kilmicheal. When word reached Riley's father, Albert King, of Nora Ella's death, he became concerned for Riley's welfare. He contacted Riley and told him that he could come to live with him, his new wife and family in Lexington, Mississippi whenever Riley was ready. Riley was reluctant to leave Kilmicheal because of his schooling and his newly formed gospel singing group. The group consisted of Riley's cousin Birkett Davis and his friend Walter Doris, Jr. Riley made the decision to stay in Kilmicheal.
Riley's grandmother, Elnora Farr, died on January 15, 1940. Although Riley still had kin in the area, his uncle William Pullinan and his aunt Mimy Stells, both of whom were sharecroppers for Henderson, neither family had either the resources or the room to support Riley. Riley continued to live at his grandmother's cabin and farmed one acre of Henderson's land to raise a cotton crop. He barely made enough money to live that year, and in the fall of 1940, Riley moved to Lexington to live with his father.
Riley lived with his father for two years. He became homesick for the Kilmicheal area, and in 1942 when he was 16 years old, he moved back to Kilmicheal to attend the Elkhorn school and continue singing with his gospel group. The Flake Cartledge family, white cash tenants for Edwayne Henderson, took Riley in and he worked to earn his keep. The Cartledge's were very kind to Riley, in fact Flake loaned Riley $2.50 to buy his first guitar from a Kilmicheal man, Denzil Tidwell. By the end of 1942, Riley had decided to move to the Delta in search of better work, but in the back of his mind he was thinking about forming a better singing group with his cousin, Birkett. Birkett borrowed a car, and in the spring of 1943, he moved Riley to Indianola, Mississippi.
Riley was able to find work with an Indianola planter named Johnson Barrett. Riley worked on the Barrett plantation as both a sharecropper and a tractor driver, for which he was paid a day wage of $1.00. In only a few short months after leaving Kilmicheal, Riley now had a skilled job as a tractor driver, a new singing group and a girlfriend.
The singing group consisted of a five man chorus, including Riley and cousin Birkett, and was led by John Matthews. The new group was called "The Famous St. John's Gospel Singers." Riley accompanied them on guitar when they sang, mostly at churches. Occasionally, they gave live performances which were broadcast on radio station WGRM in Greenwood, Mississippi. At this same time, Riley was also playing the blues on the Indianola street corners on Saturday nights. Blues music was not new to him, his mother's cousin, Bukka White, a noted Memphis bluesman, would come to visit Riley's family when they lived in Kilmicheal. Riley soon found out that by using his day wages for traveling money to get to other Delta towns, he could double or triple his money by playing the blues. His profits and exposure to other Delta bluesmen turned his musical interests away from the gospel spirituals.
Riley had to register for the Military draft in 1944 and was found physically fit for service. Johnson Barrett, not wanting to loose a skilled tractor driver, applied to the draft board on Riley's behalf for an occupational deferment. Barrett also told Riley that getting married would improve his chances of being deferred. Riley married his first wife, Martha Denton, on November 11, 1944, and shortly afterward he received his deferment.
After he was released from the selective service, Riley tried to convince the St. John's Gospel Singers to leave Indianola in search of fame and fortune. It soon became apparent to Riley that if he was going to make his career in music, he would have to make the break alone. The final decision came one night in May of 1946 when Riley had returned from the fields with the tractor. He shut off the tractor, but the engine turned over a couple of extra times and the machine lunged forward, breaking off the exhaust stack. Riley, not wanting to face an angry Johnson Barrett, left town with his guitar and $2.50 in his pocket. He was heading to Memphis on highway 49 in search of his cousin Bukka White ...
When Riley B. King first arrived in Memphis in the summer on 1946, he searched on Beale Street for his cousin Bukka White. After looking for Bukka for a few days, Riley finally found him and Bukka took young Riley in. For the next ten months, Bukka schooled Riley in the art of the blues. Although Riley and Bukka jammed together in private, they never played in public. Riley's talents were improving and he profited from impromptu jam sessions with other blues musicians he had met in and around the Memphis area. Bukka had prepared Riley for his life as a bluesman by teaching him everything from how to hold his guitar to phrasing lyrics. Bukka's most important trait which he impressed upon Riley was his durability, and without it, B.B. King would not be who he is today.
After ten months in Memphis with Bukka, Riley decided that his music career was getting nowhere. Besides that, he missed his wife and had left other responsibilities back in Indianola. Riley returned to Indianola, and in 1947, he and his wife Martha raised a crop on the Johnson Barrett plantation. By end of the crop season in 1948, Riley had earned enough money to pay off all of his debts by sharecropping, driving a tractor for $22.50 per week, loading trucks and playing guitar on street corners. In late 1948 he headed back to Memphis, this time bound and determined to make it in the music business.
When Riley returned to Memphis, he went to look for Sonny Boy Williamson who had a blues music radio show on station KWEM. Sonny Boy was actually Aleck "Rice" Miller, who has been commonly referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson #2. Riley had met Sonny Boy earlier in Indianola and was friends with his guitarist Robert "Junior" Lockwood. Once Riley had found Sonny Boy, he asked him if he could play a song on his blues radio show. When Riley had convinced Sonny Boy to let him play, Sonny Boy touted Riley as a new talent and the radio station was flooded with calls. Sonny Boy then set up Riley with a gig for which he himself had overbooked as a backup for his preferred show. Sonny Boy was in a bind, and Riley now had his big chance to play in front of a live crowd at Miss Annie's Saloon in West Memphis.
Riley couldn't have picked a better time to return to Memphis. Miss Annie told Riley that if he was to become a regular performer at the saloon, he would have to promote the business on the radio. On June 7, 1947, a new radio station, WDIA, went on the air. By 1948, the station was turned into one of the first all black staffed and managed radio stations. Riley went to WDIA and asked the popular DJ, Nat Williams, if he could make a record. Surprised by Riley's request, one of the station's two owners, Bert Ferguson, had an idea. The station had just secured an advertising contract for a health tonic named Pepticon, the competitor for the tonic Hadacol, which was promoted by Sonny Boy Williamson on KWEM. Ferguson set Riley up with a ten minute spot in which he could play his guitar and sing anything he liked, as long as he promoted Pepticon. Riley's advertising jingle was:
"Pepticon, Pepticon, sure is good - You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood" *
Riley became known as the Pepticon boy. Because of his popularity, the radio station expanded his program and promoted him to a DJ. Riley's show was called the "Sepia Swing Club." He played recordings by black artists, played his guitar and also sang requests from listeners. Now that he was a DJ, Riley needed a catchy name. He started out as the "Beale Street Blues Boy," later he changed it to "Blues Boy King," and finally shortened it to the now famous "B.B. King."
B.B. King's popularity was spreading and he made his first recordings in 1949 for the Bullet Recording and Transcription Company. Jim Bulleit had recently expanded Bullet Records into the race record market with a series of blues recordings called the "Sepia" series. It was these early recordings which caught the attention of the Bihari brothers, Jules, Saul and Joe, who controlled Modern Records. Modern issued three labels: Kent, Crown and RPM. In the summer of 1949, B.B. signed a recording contract with Modern Records which lasted for 10 years.
During the last six months of 1949, RPM released six B.B. King singles. A good example of one of B.B.'s earliest RPM recordings is the song, "B.B. Boogie," - from Everyday I Have the Blues, (182 K, 17 sec.) Copyright Â©, TEL-STAR Records, 1991. Although none of the recordings were a national success, locally B.B. was quite popular. B.B.'s airplay of his records, along with his public appearances, built him a steady circuit of Roadhouses and juke joints where he was the top attraction. These places might be no larger than tiny roadside hash houses or as big as large dance halls. B.B. was a local celebrity, but outside of Memphis, no one had heard of him. He was moving up fast and needed a manager. B.B.'s first manager was a Beale Street pool hall owner, Robert Henry. Henry also operated a record shop, an amusement park and a few restaurants.
Just after Christmas in 1951, B.B.'s seventh RPM single, "Three O'Clock Blues," a Lowell Fulsome tune, hit Billboard's R&B record chart. "Three O'Clock Blues," - from The Fabulous B.B. King, (133 K, 12 sec.) Copyright Â©, VIRGIN Records, 1991. By early 1952, the song reached the number one position and stayed there for 15 weeks. B.B. had finally received national recognition as a blues musician. As a result of the success of the song, Robert Henry was able to get B.B. a contract with Universal Artists in New York, which set him up with shows at the three major black theaters in the country: the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., the Royal Theater in Baltimore, and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Less than 18 months after he had first played on Sonny Boy Williamson's radio show, B.B. took a leave of absence from his job at WDIA and left Memphis for Washington to start on his first national tour.
As a result of his new found success, B.B.'s marriage was now under a heavy strain. Without any children, the couple had to either travel on the road together, or separate during tours. Martha King knew that as an entertainer, B.B. was subject to adoring young female fans. It was only a matter of time before the tension resulted in divorce. While B.B. was on tour, he got word that Martha had left Memphis and had filed for the divorce. Although he was crushed by the news, it inspired him to write the song "Woke Up This Morning," which was his first big hit after "Three O'Clock Blues." In 1952, after 8 years of marriage, B.B. and Martha King were divorced.
B.B. King's opening show on his first national tour in 1952 was at the Howard Theater in Washington, D. C. Playing with the Tiny Bradshaw band, B.B.'s performance shined, he was on his way to becoming one of the best in the business. The tour continued for six months, and over the next 18 months, B.B. performed on the road with layovers in Memphis where he continued to work for radio station WDIA. Robert Henry was still managing B.B., but Henry was not well equipped to manage a nationwide career. In 1953, B.B. broke his contract with Henry and signed up with a new manager, a Texan named Maurice Merrit. B.B. also hired a Houston based booking agent, Don Robey, who handled engagements through his agency "Buffalo Booking." B.B. King now had a legitimate national presence on the "Chitlin Circuit."
In 1955, B.B.'s friend, Cato Walker, bought a used bus from Greyhound for $5000. He spent another $3000 fixing up the old bus, which was dubbed "Big Red." Big Red served as transportation for B.B. and his band while on tour. At that time, B.B. had 13 members in the band, and a total of 18 persons with him on the road. In 1958 near Dallas, Big Red was involved in an accident. As the bus was crossing a bridge, a car was trying to pass it while an oil tanker truck had entered the bridge on the other end. The driver of the car came so close to the bus while passing it that the bus driver, Millard Lee, had to swerve to avoid hitting the car. The swerve caused Big Red to hit the bridge embankment and caromed into the path of the truck, hitting it head on. Miraculously, no one on the bus was hurt, but the truck burst into flames. As the band members crawled out of the back windows of the bus, they saw one of the two truck drivers running down the bridge with his clothes on fire. The two truck drivers died in that crash, one in the truck cab, and the other as he reached to water's edge, presumably as he tried to put out the flames that killed him.
B.B. King was not on the bus, nor was he at the scene of the crash. When he heard the news, he was glad that no one on the bus was hurt, but he realized that the accident couldn't have come at a worse time. The Friday before the crash, B.B.'s insurance on the bus had been dropped. He took the risk of operating over the weekend and renewing the policy on Monday. B.B.'s liability was settled at just under $100,000, it took years to pay off the debt. He also had to get a new bus, which he bought from Skyliner for $27,000. The new bus, named "Titan," served B.B. and the band for the next 7 years until it also met with ill fortune.
The new bus marked a transition in B.B.'s career. He had a loyal following and was a major artist in his field. He married his second wife, Sue Hall, on June 4, 1958. He had met Sue in his home town of Indianola, at Club Ebony, where Sue's mother was the manager. Sue was 15 years younger than B.B. and traveled with him constantly for 6 months until they bought a house in Los Angeles. Sue began making a home there, but B.B. was rarely in town. As was the case in his first marriage, the tension of B.B. constantly on the road drove the couple to break up. B.B. and Sue King were divorced in 1966, which he responded to by recording his biggest hit song, "The Thrill Is Gone," - from Live at the Apollo, ( 254 K, 23 sec.) Copyright Â©, GRP records, 1991.
The birth of Rock & Roll music made stars of many black performers such as Little Richard, Fats Domino, James Brown and Chuck Berry. Unfortunately for B.B., race music remained isolated from mainstream white America. Despite changing his booking agency and switching to ABC records in the early 1960's, B.B. was unable to find an opening to the mainstream which many lesser artists had. Although the change from Kent to ABC looked promising, ABC did not understand his music. B.B. was frustrated, prior to 1968 he had made no more than two appearances before white audiences, and both were disasters. Despite the setbacks, B.B.'s music was better than ever during this period of this time, here's a sample of a B.B. classic, first recorded in the early 1960's,"Sweet Sixteen," - from Why I Sing the Blues, (155 K, 14 sec.) Copyright Â©, MCA records, 1992.
Around 1965, the final barriers that kept blues as race music began falling down. The change began at the Newport Folk Festival where white America first heard the music of Sun House and Mississippi John Hurt. Also performing that day was a new group called the Butterfield Blues Band. With Paul Butterfield on harp and Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield on guitar, the Butterfield Blues Band developed a strong national following. In 1965 Elektra records released the first Butterfield Blues Band album and it gained wide popularity in white Middle America. The new excitement generated by the band with guitar playing of Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield created curiosity about the origins of their music. Countless times the were asked, "Where did you learn to play that way?" Both guitarists answered honestly, "By copying B.B.'s licks." People looked at them blankly, "B.B. who?" "The real monster," Bishop and Bloomfield would reply, "B.B. King."
After mainstream America had finally heard of B.B. King, two new events occurred in his career when all the world seemed ready for him, a hit record and a new manager. The record was the Roy Hawkins song, "The Thrill Is Gone," which B.B. had recorded in response to his divorce with his wife Sue King in 1966. In the 18 months following the peak popularity of "The Thrill Is Gone," B.B.'s itinerary changed completely. The chitlin circuit gave way to a combination of jazz clubs and rock palaces, such as the Fillmore East. This new market also expanded to include college concerts and the dining rooms of luxury resort hotels. In 1969, B.B. made his first network TV appearance on the "Tonight Show," a lucky break provided by Flip Wilson who had been filling in for Johnny Carson. With all his new triumphs, the most symbolic was his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1971. Playing on the Sullivan show was a sign that a new performer had arrived with the American public.
On June 29, 1973, B.B. was the master of ceremonies at an event held at the Philharmonic Hall, New York. The show brought together many masters of the blues; "Big Mama" Thorton, Jay McShann, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and Muddy Waters. A sample of B.B. as MC of the show can be heard on the lead-in to the track, "They Call Me Mr. Cleanhead," - from Live at Newport in New York, (114K, 10 sec.) Copyright Â©, Buddah records, 1989.
B.B.'s new manger was Sidney A. Seidenberg, a New York show business accountant, who up until 1968 had been B.B.'s book keeper. Seidenberg was able to re-negotiate contracts and get major bookings for B.B. that had been impossible with prior management. In 1973 B.B. dissolved his partnership with Seidenberg because he felt that Sid was neglecting him in favor of Gladys Knight and the Pips. B.B. became his own manager, but soon realized that he needed Seidenberg back. Seidenberg also needed B.B. back, as he had lost Gladys, so in 1977 B.B. and Sid got back together and the partnership continues today.
B.B. King feels that the most important aspect of being a blues artist is the craft of performing before a live audience. He has tried to pattern himself after the great bandleader, saxophonist and singer, Louis Jordon. One of B.B.'s most famous punch lines, which he borrowed from Jordan, can be heard live in the song, "How Blue Can You Get?," - from Why I Sing the Blues, ( 369 K, 34 sec.) Copyright Â©, MCA records, 1992. Another good example of live B.B. King is the song, "Nobody Loves Me But My Mother,"
How did B.B. King get from the chitlin circuit to the living rooms of Middle America? The complete answer is quite complex, B.B.'s success was not isolated, he rode in on top of a wave of sudden popularity for urban blues music. The rise of urban blues music gives us only part of the answer, consider that even two years after white America got the blues, they had still not heard of B.B. King. Yet when he arrived on the scene, the King came to his throne as the true heir whose identity had finally been revealed. Long live the King, may we all be so privileged as to enjoy the man and his music for many more years to come.