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B.B. King's performances and recordings have shaped the blues for more than six decades, reaching out to each new generation in terms they understand and embrace. His career is truly unique and includes over seven hundred recordings, as well as meetings with presidents, heads of state, and the Pope. B.B. King at Yale University's graduation, New Haven, Connecticut, 1977. All photographs (unless otherwise noted) are courtesy of the William R. Ferris Collection in Wilson Library's Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
B.B. King's name is synonymous with the blues. At the age of eighty-one, the blues patriarch maintains a rigorous schedule of performances throughout the nation and overseas that would exhaust a much younger artist. King's performances and recordings have shaped the blues for more than six decades, reaching out to each new generation in terms they understand and embrace.
As an artist, B.B. King defies definition. Born Riley B. King in 1925 on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta near the towns of Itta Bena and Indianola, he was profoundly shaped by gospel singers in the black church, as well as by blues artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson. In 1946 he hitched a ride to Memphis, where he lived for ten months with his mother's cousin Bukka White, a noted blues artist. In Memphis, King launched his career as the "Pepticon Boy," advertising Pepticon medicine on radio station wdia and also performing with Bobby Bland, Johnny Ace, and Earl Forest in a group called "The Beale Streeters." King adopted the nickname "The Beale Street Blues Boy," which he shortened to "Blues Boy," and then to "B.B."
In 1950 King's "Three O'Clock Blues" topped the rhythm-and-blues charts for four months and launched his career as a professional musician. He organized his own band and went on the road, barely two years since he made his last cotton crop in the Delta. Thus began a career that has continued uninterrupted to the present and underscores the power of his line, "Night life is a good life, the only life I know."
For twenty years King played over three hundred one-night stands a year in black-owned clubs known as the "Chitlin' Circuit." He also played week-long engagements each year in large, urban black theaters such as the Howard in Washington, the Regal in Chicago, and the Apollo in New York.
As the Civil Rights Movement developed in the early sixties, King's career fell into a slump. Younger black audiences found his music uncomfortably close to the world of Jim Crow, and white fans of the folk music revival felt he was too commercial. Only when the Rolling Stones, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and British and American rock groups acknowledged King as their idol did his career revive. After his first European tour in 1968, King was embraced by white audiences in the United States, and their support has steadily grown since that time.
Unlike many other blues artists, King eclectically blends diverse styles in his music. As a child, he played his first music on the one-strand-on-the-wall, a traditional instrument made by stretching a wire from a broom handle between two bricks over a metal bolt on each. He plucked the string and moved a bottle up and down to change the notes. King's guitar style is strongly influenced by blues guitarists Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker, and by jazz guitarists Django Reinhardt and [End Page 6] Charlie Christian. He blends their styles with delicately "bent" notes and powerful vocals drawn from his musical roots in the Mississippi Delta.