The Real King

The most touching bluesman of our time, and the most influential electric guitarist ever, the “King of the Blues” sums up his message with some simple advice. “I would say to all people, but maybe to young people especially–black and white or whatever color–follow your own feelings and trust them, find out what you want to do and do it, and then practice it every day of your life and keep becoming what you are, despite any hardships and obstacles you meet. ” So hard to follow yet so good to live by, those words also describe the course of the musician’s xtraordinary career.

The obstacles in his path were many: He was born during the Great Depression in the poorest of American states, the son of black farm laborers. Only talent, hard work, and an unstoppable artistic vision can account for King’s journey out of the Mississippi Delta, through the roadhouse joints of the “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the South to the legendary Apollo Theater in New York, into the recording studio, to the hearts of millions.

Praising his “apparently inexhaustible reserve of creativity,” as he presented B. B. King ith the National Medal of Arts in 1990, President George Bush hailed the blues musician as a “trailblazer, an authentic pioneer who literally helped shape his art form. ” Riley B. King (the extra “B” came later and doesn’t stand for anything) spent his childhood all over the state of Mississippi. When his parents separated in 1929, the boy went to live with his maternal grandmother in Kilmichael; his mother died when he was nine and, in 1940, B. B. joined his father’s new family in Lexington for two years before returning to Kilmichael.

He took on farm work in Indianola in 1946 but, after wrecking a tractor, decided his future lay in Memphis, Tennessee. A fan of the bluesman Bukka White, young B. B. looked him up for advice and found himself working as a street corner bluesman in Memphis. In 1948 he worked up the nerve to audition for WDIA, a hillbilly radio station that was about to change its format to cater to the black community. He got the job. He cut his first record in 1949, “Miss Martha King,” followed by “Three O’Clock Blues” and “She’s Dynamite” in 1951.

Both reached Number One in Memphis. By 1955, King decided to put together his own band, and a steady string of hits followed that included “Recession Blues,” “Rock Me, Baby,” “How Blue Can You Get,” “Help The Poor,” “Don’t Answer the Door,” and the immortal “The Thrill Is Gone,” which brought the bluesman his first Grammy Award. King’s fans by the 1960s included the Rolling Stones–for whom he opened on tour–as well as rockers like Eric Clapton.

Still, while his influence could be heard in more than a few rock singles, B. B. King himself remained true to the blues. With is guitar “Lucille” strapped across his broad chest, King hit the road around 1946 and has not stopped since. He redefined and reinvigorated the blues at a time when rock and roll seemed the only answer to American popular music, and his uncompromising artistry has had a telling influence on both rock and contemporary urban blues. King’s tastes range wide but, whatever the source of his inspiration, the transformation leads right back to the blues: His roots in the big church choirs and soulful wailing of the South, they are those of the people who work this country’s soil, those too of the millions who live in the great American cities.

His unique, easy string vibrato, his heartbreaking singing, and his impeccable musicianship have set him apart even as a generation has grown that–in no small part thanks to B. B. King’s example–finds the blues a rejuvenated, vibrant American art form. “We don’t play rock and roll,” he said in 1957. “Our music is blues, straight out of the Delta. I believe we’ll make it on that. ” He was right. He still is.

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