BB King: 'The King of the Blues' who influenced generations of guitarists in a career that spanned more than 60 years

He was baffled once when he arrived at the Filmore in San Francisco and saw  it filled with white kids

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The Independent Online

BB King, the self-styled King of the Blues, was the great international proselytiser of a very specific musical form of which he came to be seen as the personification. For the last 45 years he was at the helm of the worldwide interest in blues, his own work almost a primer to the style.

But it had not always been so. Although he became certainly the most internationally recognisable blues brand name, the first 15 or so years of King’s career were marked by his audience consisting almost exclusively of American blacks. It was not until 1970 that “The Thrill is Gone”, which became a signature tune, marked his first appearance on the US pop charts, reaching No 15.

Moreover, adapting to difficult circumstances, his first success came not as a musical performer, but as a DJ on a Memphis radio station, WDIA. In 1948, on the second day of his second trip to the Tennessee city, dripping wet from pouring rain, the wood of his uncased guitar starting to bulge from the damp, Riley B King walked into the lobby of the radio station and began to play his instrument.

 

The station owner, Bert Ferguson, was walking by: he saw King as the perfect performing host for a new show sponsored by Pepticon, an all-purpose tonic. Accordingly, Riley King became known in Memphis as The Pepticon Boy; during his programme he would sing the tonic’s jingle: “Pepticon, Pepticon, sure is good, You can get it anywhere in your neighbourhood.” He was given a further slot on WDIA, the station according him the sobriquet of Beale Street Boy, the origin of his “BB” nickname.

It was King’s local appeal that in 1950 led to the birth of this singer-DJ’s first group, with the excellent vocalist-pianist James Alexander. His style was the brash bar-blues style, popularised in Memphis and Chicago, but at its core essentially country blues. His vocal manner was derived partially from the hugely influential Roy Brown, who in 1948 had recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, and pioneered a style of blues crying rather than shouting.

King’s guitar-playing was influenced by the sophisticated T-Bone Walker, the pioneer of electric guitar in jump combos, as well as by Mississippi-style acoustic playing, and by the bottleneck technique of Kokomo Arnold and Robert Johnson. But he made these influences his own style – “instantly recognisable as King’s – economical, glittering, sharp, and very moving,” said the author Charlie Gillett.

His guitar frequently answered the singer’s lines. “I believe a guy should be able to phrase on a guitar almost like the singing of a violin or saxophone, and this is what I’ve been trying to get,” he told Ralph J Gleason in 1967. “I can’t tell anybody what I want to hear. But I hear it myself, but I can’t play it.”

After several local hits, recorded in WDIA’s studio and engineered by a young Sam Phillips, he had his first national success at the end of 1951: “Three O’Clock Blues”, recorded in two takes at the Memphis YMCA with blankets muffling the echo, was soon the No 1 tune on the American R & B charts; his friend Ike Turner had sold the idea of recording the young radio star to the local Modern Records.

In 1953 he was No 1 again, with the faster “Please Love Me”, while the moody “You Upset Me Baby” occupied the same slot a year later. The intimate atmosphere of those early songs was partially derived from the cheap, simple style of recording: largely they featured only guitar, piano and saxophone. The artists made their physical presence known on record.

Taken up by the New York agency Universal Attractions, King found himself promoted at the chitlin’ circuit’s showcase venues, especially the Apollo in Harlem. So, despite national exposure, he began his career as an artist marketed almost exclusively at the black audience. Playing unusually in Louisiana to a white audience, he stayed segregated and out of sight except for when he was onstage, entering via the kitchen.

Once, rushing back inside a burning venue in the mid-1950s to retrieve his guitar, he narrowly escaped death. When he learned that the fight that had caused the fire had been over a woman named Lucille, he gave the name to his guitar to remind him never to fight over a girl. Ever since, each one of his trademark Gibson guitars was called Lucille.

He was one of the few rhythm and blues performers of his era who made no obvious attempt to reach the white rock’n’roll audience. Though his arrangements were undeniably commercial, he aimed for that black audience who preferred ballads to hard blues. “At their best his records were unrivalled cry blues: ‘Three O’Clock Blues’ and ‘When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer’,” said Charlie Gillett.

Unlike Muddy Waters, who stuck to his own brash, harsh sound and was identified firmly with Chicago, King became identified with a specifically American blues sound, a product of his endlessly criss-crossing the country on a non-stop tour, acutely aware of the needs of his audience: some of his records sounded close to Waters’ sound, others emulated the soft ballad style of Percy Mayfield.

But King always used his voice and guitar to provide melody and harmony. His style was broad. He had a series of varied hits in the rhythm and blues market: 1956’s “Sweet Little Angel” was sung hard, with a heavy beat; 1958’s “Please Accept My Love” was gentle, plaintive; “Sweet Sixteen” (1960) used a strong band riff behind King’s voice and guitar and built up into one of the most dramatic blues performances ever recorded, with gospel inflections dominating King’s singing at the end of the two-part performance. His more sophisticated and modern style won him a place in the hearts of up-and-coming younger blues performers.

Born in 1925 in the Mississippi Delta, Riley King was the only child of his sharecropper parents to survive infancy. After his parents split up when he was five or six, his mother took him to live in the hill country east of the Yazoo river. After his mother died of diabetes, from which he also later suffered, he was raised by his grandmother Elnora.

A preacher named Archie Fair, a distant relative, introduced him to the guitar (“He’d always lay his guitar on the bed and I’d go get it as soon as they turned their backs,” he said) and gave him a leading role in the dramatic services of the local Sanctified Church. At first he was influenced by the music of his cousin Bukka White, as well as Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Sonny Boy Williamson. But he was also a fan of jazz players like Charlie Christian, especially when he was playing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and Django Reinhardt. “A little bit of all of those people I liked, with my own ideas, created the BB King twinging guitar sound,” he said.

Elnora died when he was 14, and the boy was forced to fend for himself, raising cotton on an acre of ground for $2.50 a month. After several moves he ended up on a plantation in Indianola, working as a tractor driver during the Second World War. With his cousin Birkett Davis he founded The Famous St John’s gospel Singers, who performed largely in churches but sometimes also on local radio stations. When Riley began to play on street corners in Delta towns, he found that blues tunes were far more popular than gospel.

Taken up in the mid-1960s by such British blues fans as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and John Mayall, he stepped outside the chitlin’ circuit, baffled once on arriving at a venue – the Filmore in San Francisco – and seeing it filled with white kids. In December 1967 he played there, third-billed to the Byrds and Electric Flag. The next year he played at the Newport Folk Festival. In 1969 he toured with the Rolling Stones, and later with U2. But it was not until 2000 that his Riding With The King album, recorded with Eric Clapton, gave King his first substantial pop album hit.

The King of the Blues was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1991, BB King’s Blues Club opened on Beale Street in Memphis, and in 1994, a second club was launched in Los Angeles. In 1996, King’s autobiography, Blues All Around Me, written with David Ritz, was published.

He continued to tour extensively, averaging over 250 concerts per year around the world. He was awarded his 15th Grammy in 2009 in the traditional blues album category for One Kind Favor. He collapsed during a concert in Chicago last October, later blaming dehydration and exhaustion. He died in Las Vegas, where he had been in hospice care.

CHRIS SALEWICZ

Riley King (BB King), musician: born Itta Bena, Mississippi 16 September 1925; married 1946 Martha Lee Denton (divorced 1952), 1958 Sue Carol Hall (divorced 1966), 15 children; died Las Vegas 14 May 2015.

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