He says he can’t sing and keep rhythm on the guitar at the same time, but the unquestionable king of the blues – in both record sales and influence – took the world by storm on his 1965 Live At The Regal LP.
The Mississippi-born son of a share cropper, Riley B King started singing the blues on the streets of Chicago after he had finished his US Army service in World War II.
In 1947, he hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, home to a thriving music scene that supported aspiring black performers.
He stayed with his cousin Bukka White, one of the most celebrated blues performers of his time, who schooled King further in the art of the blues.
King took the name Beale Street Blues Boy for a stint as a disc jockey for radio station WDIA-AM Memphis.
He got his first big break in 1948 by performing on Sonny Boy Williamson‘s radio show out of West Memphis, leading to steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis and a 10-minute spot on WDIA.
As “King’s Spot” grew in popularity on WDIA, King shortened “Beale Street Blues Boy” to “Blues Boy King” and eventually BB King.
His ascent continued in 1949 with his first recordings, Miss Martha King b/w Take a Swing with Me and How Do You Feel When Your Baby Packs Up and Goes? b/w I’ve Got the Blues.
His first hit record, Three O’Clock Blues, was released in 1951 and stayed on the top of the charts for four months.
It was during this era that King first named his beloved guitar ‘Lucille’. In the mid-1950s, he was performing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas, when a few fans became unruly and started a fire. King ran out, forgetting his guitar, and risked his life to go back and get it.
He later found out that two men fighting over a woman named Lucille knocked over a kerosene heater that started the fire. He named the guitar Lucille, “to remind myself never to do anything that foolish.”
King used various models of Gibson guitars over the years and named them each Lucille.
During the 1950s he had many successes in the black record market but remained largely unknown to a white audience until acknowledged by Eric Clapton and other famous white guitarists.
Since jamming with Clapton and Elvin Bishop in 1967, BB King became a major household name and toured the world incessantly.
In 1988 King reached a new generation of fans with the single When Love Comes To Town, a collaborative effort between King and the Irish band U2 (on their Rattle and Hum album).
In 2000, King teamed up with Eric Clapton to record Riding With the King, and in 1998 he appeared in the movie Blues Brothers 2000 (playing the lead singer of the Louisiana Gator Boys) along with Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Koko Taylor, and Bo Diddley.
Over 52 years BB King has played at least 15,000 shows. He played his farewell tour in 2006, at the ripe old age of 80.
In April 2015, King was placed in home hospice care in Las Vegas after suffering from dehydration. He died on 14 May 2015, aged 89.