Wednesday, May 20, 2015


BB King was a legend, perhaps America's most successful blues musician. He was one of the original players of the blues generation and become a household name long 
before he died. Sadly, when someone like King passes away, history passes along with them. Very little now remains of that remarkable generation. It is now 112 years since the release of “Dallas Blues” by Hart Wand (the first copyrighted ‘blues’ composition) and America has enthusiastically embraced both the music and it's tragic creators. The least of which being BB King.

When I first began this post, the goal was to provide a simple “TOP SOMETHING” list of interesting BB King facts. We have all know about King’s guitar skills, legendary touring schedule, and his hits. However, as I began to study the facts, King’s childhood really began to make an impression. It’s an unforgettable story and it deserves to be told. So before the factoids, allow me to connect the humanity to the man.

A brief history of his childhood.

BB King was born Reiley King to a poor family in a riverside cabin on the Bear Creek plantation in Berclair, Mississippi. He saw his first electric light bulb at the age of 16.

When he was 5, he was devastated by the death of his two year old brother ( Curce King ) who is alleged to have died from eating glass.

King eventually left the delta life and moved to the hill country of Mississippi when he was 8. His parents separated, and his mother, Nora Ella took King with her. Nora wanted to return to the surroundings of her large extended family.

Tragedy again broke into Kings life when he was 9. His mother dies at the young age of 31. Nora is believed to have lost her battle with diabetes.

King now lives with his grandmother where hard work, education, and church become his way of life. His environment is very communal and lacking in basic infrastructure. The town has little indoor plumbing and no electricity, and his school year is based on the planting / harvest seasons. Many of the families in King’s life are sharecroppers and farmhands, and all of the children work the fields with the adults while school is not in session.

“I was a regular hand when I was 7. I picked cotton. I drove tractors. Children grew up not thinking that this is what they must do. We thought this was the thing to do to help your family,”

"I guess the earliest sound of blues that I can remember was in the fields while people would be pickin' cotton or choppin' or somethin’."
Despite his surroundings, BB King managed to gain two great advantages from the dominant church presence in his life. The first came from Reverend Archie Fair, the pastor of his local church. Pastor Fair was a fervent man who lead worship with vitality, playing his guitar during the service. King was said to be instantly fixated by this. He was later given the chance to play on the pastor’s guitar, and it was an obvious fit. The second came from his teacher and church administrator, Luther Henson. Luther taught King to read, be self-reliant, and how to live as a fair minded and responsible man. This would come to serve King well, as he had to begin his adult life at a mere 14 years of age.

By this time, King was alone and given one acre of land to tend to by the farm boos. At one point, King is making $22.50 a week on this plot, but never enough to fully pay back the owner. None the less, he was given a loan by the farm boss in order to buy a guitar and get music lessons. King loved the blues, aka, “The Devil’s Music” and especially enjoyed Sonny Boy Williamson. On Saturdays, his street performances would earn him more than his farming did for the entire week. He was also a regular church performer and a member of the ‘Famous St. John Gospel Singers.’

Eventually, King left Mississippi for Memphis where he was surrounded with a musical atmosphere that he only once dreamed of.

"When I sing and play now I can hear those same sounds that I used to hear then as a kid.”
King was inducted in the U.S. Army during the WWII, but was released after basic training due to his high level of skill as a tractor driver. This skill classified him as ‘Essential to the War Economy.”

Eventually, King made a few seminal performances through radio, and the rest was history.

So with that history, let’s visit:


10. When Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968, King joined Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy in an all-night blues benefit in order to raise money for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

BB King had two marriages and fifteen children. He sadly performed for one of his children in 1992. He was performing at a jail in Gainesville, Florida where his daughter Patty happened to be an inmate.

08. King founded FAIRR (the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation), an organization dedicated to the improvement of prison conditions. Much like Johnny Cash, he played in prisons throughout his career.

07. King was a deejay in 1949. During his time at WDIA Radio ( still on the air to this day ), his nickname was ‘Beale Street Blues Boy.” This eventually shortened to B.B. and the name never left him.

06. King earned 30 Grammy nominations, 15 wins and a Lifetime Achievement award. He was also on Billboard’s R&B charts an amazing 74 times.

05. In the late 60’s, black audiences were moving away from the blues. However, rock musicians in England were beginning to immerse themselves in the genre. Artists like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck brought the blues to eager white audiences. This led to King sharing the stage with Black Sabbath, Santana, Janice Joplin and others.

When asked by Jet magazine if King felt that African Americans were abandoning the blues, King replied, “Anything that we stop supporting and others start, I don't know if you call it giving it away or we just leave it out there and let somebody else have it."

04. In 1969, "The Thrill Is Gone" was released. In 1971 it won a Grammy and became King's biggest hit and a concert standard. It was a hit on both the pop and R&B charts which is still considered rare even by today's standards.

03. King was a licensed pilot, a compulsive gambler, a non-drinker and non-smoker, he also was a vegetarian as he too battled diabetes.

02. King was a relentless showman and performer. Among his touring feats included playing 342 one-night stands in 1956, and on April 17, 2006, he performed his 10,000th live show. Throughout his life, his schedule was always full, averaging 200 shows a year.

01. One evening in Twist, Arkansas, King was performing when two men accidentally set the dance hall on fire while fighting over a woman. Even though King escaped, he ran back in to save his valuable guitar. When he discovered that the woman at the center of the fight was named Lucille, he gave his guitar the same name. He said it was to remind him never to do anything as stupid.

Thank you for joining me in remembering this amazing musician.
I leave you with this indescribable performance:


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