King of the Blues (1925-)
Riley King, Albert King
and Nora Ella King's son was born on September 16, 1925, in Itta Benna, a small town in
the state of Mississippi, isn't near anywhere, except other small towns like Inverness,
where Howlin' Wolf was born, Rolling Fork, where Muddy Waters was born, Richland where
Elmore James was born, and so on.
Not that they would have grown up knowing
each other because "near" in today's terms doesn't apply to Mississippi in the
30s and 40s when rural Blacks counted themselves privileged if they had a mule to
ride. When B.B. was four years old, his parents separated, and he grew up in the
care of his maternal grandparents in Kilmichael, Mississippi. His mother died when
he was nine. He had his first guitar at the age of 14, and began to sing in
In 1940, B.B. moved in with his father's
new family in Lexington, Mississippi for two years before returning to Kilmichael, and
subsequently, Indianola. It wasn't untill he was singing for some soldiers that he
realized he had to sing the Blues. He wrecked a tractor on the Barret farm near
Indianola in 1946, and decided that his future might be brighter in Memphis. When
B.B. tallies his years in the music business, he usually starts counting at 1946.
There, he kept in touch with Bukka White, whom he learned some
techniques, such as "bottleneck", but without slide. "I tried to play
the slide like him, but I wasn't able to do it, so I began to make my hand vibrate, and
with the help of an amplifier, I could sustain the sound." They worked nearly
10 months together, before B.B. went back to Indianola. Then he went to Memphis
again with some money in his pocket, by the end of 1948, Beale Street straight
ahead. He took up parts in some local contests at the Palace Theatre.
He met the Beale Streeters, musicians such
as Bobby Bland, Rosco Gordon, John Alexander, and Little Junior Parker, whom he shared
performances sometimes. In 1949, two very important facts would happen in his life:
When he was playing in Twist (Arkansas), two guys were arguing over a woman named
They pushed over a bucket full of querosen,
used for stove, and set the place on fire. The two men died. King was able to
save his guitar, a Gibson 335, which was baptized as Lucille, so as not to forget that
once he almost lost his life for it. The second fact was the opportunity that Sonny
Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) gave him, to sing a song in his radio program. King
succeeded, and sometime later, he had his own 10 minutes at the WDIA, under the sponsor of
Pep-ti-kon, a cure all.
"Get Pep-ti-kon today and see if you
don't say "Man, I'm really living." But he didn't know Pep-ti-kon's major
ingredient was alcohol. Then he began to be known as "The Blues Boy from Beale
Street, Bee Bee King" which first shorted into Blues Boy King, and finally, B.B.
King. At the age of 73, B.B. King has taken the Blues to all the people, from the
old ones to the youth, black or white, worldwide. He has been the most successful
Bluesman on the charts.
Revised: July 18, 2013.