BB King biography
Born: September 16, 1925 Itta Bena MS
Died: May 14, 2015, Las Vegas NV
Riley “BB” King, one of the greatest, most influential blues guitar stylists, composers and singers of the 20th century was born on a cotton plantation, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, just outside the delta town of Indianola. His parents, Albert and Nora Ella King were hardworking sharecropping farmers, who had lived in Mississippi all their lives. Young Riley was named after his uncle Riley, the brother of Albert, who was no relations to the late great blues player of the same name, who grew up in the same Delta region. Nora left her husband Albert for another man when Riley was 4 years old. Afterwards Riley was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Elnora Farr, who lived in Kilmicheal, Mississippi. After his parents broke up Riley. lost contact with his father for a awhile, living between his mother and grandmother, where he stayed most of the time.
Young BB King
Young Riley. grew up attending the Elkhorn School, which was right across the road from and affiliated with the Elkhorn Baptist Church. There he met a teacher named Luther Henson, who had a large influence on his young life, teaching him about the greatness of Black people like Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune and Frederick Douglas. Mr. Henson taught him that hard work, tenacity and faith were important things to have in his character and young Riley would embrace these values for the rest of his life. But it was in church, in Kilmicheal that he would get his first musical experience. Riley’s mother and grandmother were very religious and attended church every Sunday. Riley’s mother sang in the choir. But it was the minister of the church, Archie Fair, a very good guitarist in his own right, who became an important musical inspiration for young Riley. Reverend Fair used music as a tool in his church to bring his congregation together, and because young Riley had developed a good voice by this time he became an important part of the church’s musical environment singing in the choir; Reverend Fair would lead the congregation by playing the guitar. Riley also learned to play the guitar from Reverend Fair, who taught him how to play the E, A and B chords. At age seven Young Riley, because of the influence of Reverend Fair wanted to become a guitar playing preacher. But that was not to be, because the blues would soon began to exert an even larger influence over his life.
He really began listening to the music at his Great Aunt Mima’s house. Aunt Mima was a great music lover and young Riley heard the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson on records Aunt Mima played on the Victrola at her house. Hearing this music changed Riley’s life. The blues were exciting to him, were about emotion, feeling and they held out an offer of hope to him. Sadly, after Riley’s mother died during the summer of 1935 at the young age of 25, when he was nine years old, the blues spoke more directly to his heart. After his mother’s death his father, who had then moved to Lexington, Mississippi, wanted him to come and live with him, but Riley, because of his dedication to school and a newly formed gospel singing group decided to stay with his grandmother, Elnora. The singing group, calling itself the Elkhorn Jubilee Singers was made up of Riley’s cousin Birkett Davis, and two friends from Elkhorn; Walter Doris, Jr., and Dubois Hane. The group tried to sound like the Golden Gate Quartet but failed.
On January 15, 1940, tragedy struck young Riley again. This time his beloved grandmother Elnora died leaving young Riley to fend for himself, again. After Elnora death young Riley continued to live at his grandmother’s cabin, where he farmed and raised cotton. It was not enough to sustain him and in the fall of 1940 Riley reluctantly moved to Lexington to live with his father. After living with his father for two years Riley grew homesick for the Kilmicheal region and moved back there – with his father’s blessing – in 1942, when he was 16. Riley continued singing with his old gospel group, attending school and working for the white Flake Cartledge family, who were very supportive of young Riley’s efforts. When he was twelve Riley paid $15.00 for his first guitar. By the end of 1942 Riley had decided to move once again, this time to the Delta, to work and form a better singing group; he had out grown Kilmicheal, and during the spring he and his cousin Birkett borrowed a car had moved to Indianola, Mississippi, in the spring of 1943. Soon he had a new job as a tractor driver, a new singing group and a girlfriend.
The new group, led by John Matthews had Riley and Birkett in it and was called “The Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers.” Soon, however, Riley also began singing and playing the blues on Indianola street corners. Blues was becoming increasingly more important to him than was the music he played and sang in church. He was now looking to his mother’s first cousin Bukka White, the famous Memphis blues singer, as an important influence and mentor. ( White used to come and visit Riley’s family when he lived in Kilmicheal. ) Very quickly Riley found out he could double and sometimes triple the amount of money he could make playing the blues and he turned away from gospel and spiritual music to the blues. In 1944, on November 11, Riley married his first wife, Martha Denton. one night in May, 1946, after wrecking his boss’s tractor, Riley, not wanting to face the white man’s anger left Indianola with $2.50 in his pocket.
Riley arrived in Memphis, Tennessee during the early summer of 1946 searching for his cousin Bukka White,. hoping the famous blues singer might take him in. After searching Beale Street and everywhere else for a few days Riley finally found White, who took him for the next ten months, teaching him the art of the blues. And though they never played in public they jammed together in private. White also taught Riley how to hold the guitar and how to phrase his lyrics. But the most important thing that Bukka White taught him was durability and without it he would not be the B.B. King we know today.
B.B. King missed his wife and returned to Indianola in 1947 to get her; he and his wife also worked for Johnson Barrett, the man whose tractor he had wrecked and by the end of the crop season in 1948 had earned enough money driving a tractor, loading trucks and playing guitar on street corners to pay off his debt. In late 1948 he and his wife headed back to Memphis, where
Riley was determined now to make in the music business, and make it he did. BB King’s first big break came in 1948, in Memphis, when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show after playing him one of his songs. Williamson liked it and put the young singer and guitarist on the air. After the radio audience heard Riley they flooded the radio station with calls praise for this unknown singer. This led to Riley performing steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis and later to a ten minute radio spot on the Black owned radio station, WDIA. Soon Riley was the talk of Memphis and needed a more catchy name than Riley for radio broadcasts. When he was just starting out young Riley had nicknamed himself “Blues Boy” King, a moniker shortened now to “B.B.”, the name that would stick to him like glue for the rest of his life.
In the mid-1950’s two men at a performance of B.B.’s got into a fight and knocked over a kerosene stove that set the hall on fire. B.B., like everyone else ran out of the hall to saved their lives. But B.B., realizing he had left his guitar inside ran back to get it, barely escaping with his life. After he found out the fight was over a woman named Lucille he decided to name his guitar after the woman and this name has been the name of every guitar BB King has played since that night. After his rendition of Lowell Fulson’s “Three O clock Blues” became a national hit, in 1952, B.B. and his wife, Martha, after eight years of marriage were divorced. One of the reasons Martha divorced him was because, by now B.B. was performing an average of 275 one night stands every year, all over the country. Badly hurt by the break-up of his marriage it nevertheless inspired him to write the blues classic; “Woke Up This Morning.” By the time BB King married his second wife, Sue Hall, on June 4, 1958, he had become a major star. But constant travel, the very same thing that had plagued his first marriage, doomed this one also. And so after eight years of marriage Sue and B.B. were divorced in 1966. It was the last time he would marry. Again divorce inspired him to sing a song that would become a hit, this time it would be Roy Hawkins, “The Thrill Is Gone.”
Although BB King was a huge star in the African-American music community by 1965 he was still mostly unknown in the White community. This would change in 1965 when Elektra Records released Paul Butterfield’s first Butterfield Blues Band album, featuring the late Mike Bloomfield on guitar. Bloomfield became a star, almost overnight, and when he was asked where he learned to play the way he did, he replied, “By copying B.B.’s licks.” No one knew who “B.B.” was. And when they asked, “B.B.” who? Bloomfield replied, “The real monster; BB King.” After this happened BB King’s popularity soared. In short order “The Thrill Is Gone” became a big hit, he stopped having to play the “chitlin circuit” small town black clubs and started playing larger jazz clubs, dining rooms of luxury resort hotels, college concerts and rock palaces such as Filmore East . In 1969 B.B. made his first appearance on network television on Johnny Carson’s the “Tonight Show.” In 1971 B.B. sang and played on Ed Sullivan’s show. By this time Sidney A. Seidenberg had come on board as B.B.’s new manager, he helped re-negotiate his old recording contracts with ABC/MCA records and got him major new bookings. Since the 1970’s BB King’s career has moved at a rapid pace up hill. He has recorded over 75 records, has received seven Grammy Awards, including its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987, has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, 1984, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1987, become a Member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, 1990, received the Presidential Medal of the Arts, 1990, the Orville H. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award, 1991, the Kennedy Center Honors, 1995, Presidential Medal of Freedom, American Heritage Fellowship Award by the National Endowment of the Arts, Three NAACP Image Awards, an MTV Video Music Award, 1989/89, a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and many, many more. He has won 22 Downbeat Music Magazine Readers and Critics Poll Awards, 5 Guitar Player Magazine Awards, he has received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Yale University and fathered 15 children. He has toured with U2 as the super rock group’s opening act and had a song, “When Love Comes to Town, written for him by U2’s star, lead singer, Bono. BB King still works between 250 and 300 days a year, calling himself a “music workaholic.” He lives ( when he takes time to rest ) in Las Vegas, Nevada. and currently plays a Gibson ES-355, a guitar he has been playing for over 25 years. He has played all over the world including Africa, Europe, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand and is properly referred to everywhere as “The Ambassador of the Blues,” a title he so richly deserves.
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