"Nelson Mandela should be celebrated for what he has done for the human race. I'm so happy to see that there is now a day honoring this man who is my hero."
BB King is the undisputed King of the Blues, known as the ambassador of the blues around the world having toured over 90 countries.
Born Riley B King on 16 September, 1925, BB grew up on a cotton plantation in Itta Bene, Mississippi. In 1947, with $2.50 and his guitar, he hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, to pursue his musical career. Memphis was where every important musician of the South gravitated; it supported a large, competitive musical community where almost every musical style popular among black musicians at the time was heard. BB stayed with his cousin Bukka White, one of the most renowned rural blues performers of his time, who schooled BB further in the art of blues.
BB’s first big break came in 1948, when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio programme on KWEM out of West Memphis. This led to steady performance engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis and later, to a 10-minute spot on black-staffed and managed radio station WDIA.
Soon BB needed a catchy radio name. What started out as the Beale Street Blues Boy was shortened to Blues Boy King, and eventually, BB King.
In the mid 1950s, while BB was performing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas, a few fans became unruly. Two men got into a fight and knocked over a kerosene stove, setting fire to the hall. BB raced outside to safety with everyone else, but then realised that he had left his $30 guitar inside. He rushed back inside to retrieve it, narrowly escaping death. When he later found out that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he decided to give the name to his guitar. Since then, every one of BB’s guitars has been named Lucille.
Shortly after his number one hit, Three O’Clock Blues in 1952, BB began touring nationally and has never stopped, performing on average, 175 concerts a year. In 1956, BB and his band played an astonishing 342 one-night gigs.
A renowned blues musician, BB says was introduced to blues music and blues guitar during his time in the army.
“I heard an electric guitar that wasn’t playing spiritual,” says BB. “It was T-Bone Walker doing Stormy Monday, and that was the prettiest sound I think I ever heard in my life. That’s what really started me playing the blues.”
Over the years, BB developed one of the world’s most readily identified guitar styles. He borrowed from Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and others, integrating his precise vocal-like string bends and left-hand vibrato, both of which have become indispensible components of rock guitarists’ vocabulary. His style of playing has influenced thousands of guitarists, including Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Jeff Beck.
BB has mixed traditional blues, jazz, swing, mainstream pop and jump to form a unique sound.
BB’s advice is refreshing simple.
“From my own experience, I would say to all people, but maybe to young people especially; black, white, or whatever colour, follow your own feelings and trust them; find out what you want to do and do it and then practise it every day of your life and keep becoming what you are despite any hardships and obstacles you meet.”
Over the years, BB has been nominated for 23 Grammy Awards and won 15; his latest was in 2008.
In addition to his 15 Grammys, BB has: been presented with the Polar Music Award; received seven honorary doctorates; been inducted into many halls of fame; released two gold records and three platinum records; and won numerous lifetime achievement awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the higest civilian award in the United States.
Since BB started recording in the late 1940s, he has released more than 75 albums, many of them considered blues classics, such as 1965’s definitive live blues albumLive At The Regal, and his 2000 Riding With The King collaboration with Eric Clapton.