With the recent passing of the king of the blues, B.B. King, there have been a lot of interesting facts that have come up about him that many people aren’t aware of. This writer has heard several things lately that he thinks would be interesting to share.
Riley B. King is the birth name of B.B. King. The B is not an abbreviation. It doesn’t stand for anything other than the letter. He was born on Sept. 16, 1925 in Itta Benna, Miss. Indianola is near and often referred to as B.B.’s home town. A cotton plantation in Itta Benna is where he actually was born. He died on May 14, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nev. His last live performance was at Chicago’s House of Blues, October 3rd, 2014.
Mr. King went to Memphis in 1947. He followed his mother’s cousin Bukka White to the Tennessee city. It was where every black musician wanted to be to further their career back then. Bukka was one of the best blues performers of the day. He schooled B.B. in the art of the blues.
When B.B. King began playing in Memphis, he needed a catchy name. It started as Beale Street Blues Boy; then shortened to Blues Boy and finally B.B.
King’s first big break came in 1948 when he played on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM out of West Memphis. This led to a ten-minute spot on black-staffed and managed Memphis radio station WDIA.
Mr. King recorded over 50 albums both live and studio according to Wikpedia. That includes two live Chicago albums, 1965’s “Live at the Regal” and 1971’s “Live In Cook County Jail”. “Live at the Regal” is regarded by many to be the best live blues album ever. His very first recording was the single “Miss Martha King”, which was recorded in 1949 for Bullet Records. His first #1 R&B hit was “Three O’clock Blues” in 1951. “The Thrill Is Gone”, his most well known song was a crossover hit in 1970. It reached # 15 on the pop charts. He won a Grammy for the song, which was one of 15.
The story of “Lucille” took place in the mid-1950s at a dance in Twist, Ark. Two men began fighting and knocked over a kerosene stove, setting fire to the hall. B.B. raced out the door like everyone else. He then realized he left his guitar inside. He rushed back inside the burning building to retrieve his guitar, narrowly escaping death. He later found out that the fight was over a woman named Lucille. Both men died in the fire. Ever since, he has named his guitars “Lucille”, as a reminder to never fight over women or run into a burning building.
In 1968 King played at the Newport Folk Festival & Fillmore West, both locations with rock artists of the day. This introduced him to a young white audience. In 1969, B.B. opened 18 shows for the Rolling Stones on their American tour to further his exposure.
Did one know that B.B. was an FAA certified private pilot? He learned to fly in 1963 at what was then the Chicago Hammond Airport in Lansing, Ill. It’s now the Lansing Municipal Airport. He stopped flying at the age of 70 at the urging of his insurance company and manager.
Mr. King appeared on many television shows including Sanford & Son, Married…with Children, The Cosby Show, The Young and the Restless, Sesame Street, Touched by an Angel, General Hospital, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Austin City Limits. B.B. appeared on Sesame Street performing a song about the letter B. He played at the White House along with Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy and many more on February 21, 2012 that was broadcast on PBS. President Obama joined in singing to “Sweet Home Chicago”.
B.B. had diabetes for over 20 years. He often was a spokesman for the disease. He appeared in diabetes commercials for One Touch Ultra. However, his final commercial was for Toyota Camry this year.
He had movie cameo appearances in “Spies Like Us”, “Blues Brothers 2000”and “Heart and Souls”. In 2012, “The Life of Riley” a documentary about King was released about his life that was narrated by Morgan Freeman.
Mr. King participated in many notable festivals in recent years including the Chicago Blues Festival and Bonaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester Tenn. in 2008. Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival had B.B. appear for both Chicago area shows in 2007 and 2010. He also appeared in New York in 2013. Closing the 2010 show after having delays getting to the venue, he said “I’m 85 years old. I can do whatever I want.”
He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984. Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame took place in 1987. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked B.B. number #6 out of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Ever notice Mr. King did not play guitar and sing at the same time?
In 1997, B.B. performed at the 5th annual Christmas concert at the Vatican. He presented Pope John Paul II his trademark guitar “Lucille”. King often played on Good Friday at the Star Plaza in Merrillville, Ind. along with his friend Bobby “Blue” Bland.
In 1956 he played 342 one night stands. He was known to regularly play over 250 shows a year.
In 1991 the first of many of his namesake clubs opened in Memphis. There are now clubs in New York, L.A., Orlando, West Palm Beach, two in Connecticut, Las Vegas and another in Memphis.
King was married twice. His first wife was Martha Lee Denton, 1946 to 1952. His second wife was Sue Carol Hall, 1958 to 1966. He is said to have fathered 15 children with different women. His daughter Shirley King is a blues singer.
Frank Sinatra was B.B.’s favorite singer. He said in his autobiography he went to bed every night listening to “In the Wee Small Hours”.