Personalities | B.B. King | Sixties | Jazz & Blues

When the great Mississippi musician Riley King left the cotton fields to seek his fortune in Memphis in 1946, he had $2.50 in his pocket and a battered guitar in his hand. Today, his name is synonymous with blues music itself, yet his ascendance to the zenith of the blues world never altered his friendly, downhome nature.

King was one of the most influential guitarists of the past 50 years, with a lush, sustained yet punchy tone and singing vibrato that had a vast impact on generations of players across all genres. The soaring phrases of his warm, Delta-accented voice cut right to the emotional core of the blues.

King combined the urban Chicago sound with the more refined blues of the East Coast, while also adding elements of his own, Memphis-influenced style. He took inspiration from a number of jazz musicians, including guitarists Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt and saxophonist Lester Young, as well as blues artists such as T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. King’s diverse influences gave him an original approach to harmony and phrasing; he played slightly off the beat and preferred to use vibrato in the place of a slide to colour his improvisations.

Blues Boy

King was born on a plantation near Indianola on 16 September 1925. He had a difficult childhood, with the intimidations of jim crow compounded by his mother’s death when he was 10 years old. Like many of his blues contemporaries, King grew up working in the cotton fields. His parents and grandparents were musical, and although King never received any formal music education, he sang in gospel groups and church choirs from an early age and by 16 had taught himself to play the guitar and could be seen busking on the Delta streets.

King was singing regularly in a gospel quartet when he left for Memphis to stay for a time with his cousin, bluesman Bukka White. With his bold voice and charisma, betraying the influence of R&B showmen such as Roy Brown (albeit tempered by more gentle gospel inflections), and a distinctive guitar style, King began to enter and frequently win talent shows. One such contest, held weekly at Beale Street’s Palace Theater, was compered by the comedian, entertainer and future star of Sun Records, Rufus Thomas, and was also a significant starting point for the careers of other R&B musicians including Ike Turner and Roscoe Gordon.

In 1948, after an enforced return to the Mississippi plantation, King secured a daily 10-minute spot on radio station WDIA. He used it to sell patent medicines like Pepticon while also plugging his area gigs. King chose ‘The Beale Street Blues Boy’ as his radio moniker, which was then abbreviated to ‘B.B.’ for ‘Blues Boy’. This show led King to a more prestigious role presenting Sepia Swing Show, on which he spun discs by mainly R&B and jump blues artists, including Amos Milburn, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson and...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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