Riley B. King was born to Albert Lee King and Nora Ella King on 16 September 1925 just outside the towns of Itta Bena and Berclair, Mississippi. When Riley was four, his mother went to live with another man, and the boy moved from household to household for several years, living mostly with his maternal grandmother, Elnora Farr, in Kilmichael. Though he was raised in a Baptist tradition, the sanctified preaching of the Holiness Church had the greatest impact on King. His uncle’s brother-in-law, Archie Fair, often played the guitar during church services and taught the boy a few chords. He had a powerful voice and often sang solos in church. During the winter months when he was not working the fields, King attended the Elkhorn Baptist School in Kilmichael, where teacher Luther Henson instilled a zest for learning and self-improvement that drove King throughout his life.
King toiled in the fields around Kilmichael until he was almost eighteen years old, when he moved to the Johnson Barrett Plantation outside Indianola. Here, he helped form a five-member group, the Famous St. John Gospel Singers, that performed in churches and on a few live radio broadcasts. King also began playing blues on street corners and listening to other bluesmen, such as Robert Jr. Lockwood and Sonny Boy Williamson II. In 1946, just over two years after moving to Indianola, King moved to Memphis to make his living as a musician.
In Memphis, King lived with his second cousin, Bukka White, for about ten months, learning from White and other musicians. King found it difficult to compete with the numerous Beale Street bluesmen, however, and returned to Indianola and the Barrett farm in 1947. Back in Memphis the following year, King benefited from some good luck. Williamson had mistakenly booked himself for two shows at the same time and allowed King to perform for a live blues show on KWEM. Listeners loved King’s sound, and his career took off. King sang an advertising jingle for another Memphis radio station, WDIA, and soon became host of the station’s Sepia Swing Club, which showcased African American musicians. As a disc jockey, he cultivated the nickname Beale Street Blues Boy, which was later shortened to Blues Boy and ultimately B. B.
King recorded his first songs for the Bullet label in 1949 and went on to record primarily for Modern Records subsidiaries RPM, Kent, and Crown until 1962, when he began recording for ABC-Paramount. King’s first big hit came in 1951, with a cover of Lowell Fulson’s “Three o’Clock Blues.” King’s first national tour followed, and other songs, among them “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Sweet Little Angel,” rose up the R&B chart. His biggest crossover hit, “The Thrill Is Gone” (1970), made it to No. 3 on the R&B chart and No. 15 on the pop music chart. The King of the Blues went on to perform with many noted R&B, soul, and rock musicians, including Bobby “Blue” Bland, John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and U2, and maintained a rigorous touring schedule well into his eighties. King’s music is often defined by his powerful voice, rooted in a gospel tradition, and his distinctive guitar sound, which uses linear melodic lines and sustaining key notes to fuse clean jazz soloing and gospel cries.
A staunch supporter of civil rights, King helped Charles Evers, brother of Medgar Evers, organize the Medgar Evers Homecoming Festival and performed there for many years. King also performed at an annual homecoming festival in Indianola. In 1972 he helped start the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation, and he frequently performed at prisons.
King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He won fifteen Grammy Awards, including Best Male R&B Vocal (for “The Thrill Is Gone”) and eight Best Traditional Blues Albums. His many and varied contributions to music and the arts as well as his spirit of giving back to local communities earned him honorary degrees from Tougaloo College, Yale University, Berklee College of Music, Rhodes College of Memphis, and Mississippi Valley State University. The University of Mississippi named him honorary professor of southern studies.
A widely acclaimed 2012 documentary, The Life of Riley, told the story of King’s life and music. In addition, on 21 February of that year, he performed at the White House, and Pres. Barack Obama sang along with King on a few lines of “Sweet Home Chicago.” He gave his final performance at Chicago’s House of Blues on 3 October 2014 and died in his sleep at his Las Vegas home on 14 May 2015. He was buried at Indianola’s B. B. King Museum and Delta Interpretation Center, which opened in 2008 “to honor the life and music of one of the most accomplished musicians of our time” and “to share the rich cultural heritage of the Mississippi Delta.”
- B. B. King website, www.bbking.com
- B. B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center website, www.bbkingmuseum.org
- Sebastian Danchin, “Blues Boy”: The Life and Music of B. B. King (1998)
- B. B. King, Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B. B. King (1996)
- Richard Kostelanetz, The B. B. King Companion (1997)
- Chris Richards, Washington Post (21 February 2012)
- Tony Russell, Guardian (15 May 2015)
- Charles Sawyer, The Arrival of B. B. King (1980)