Riley B. King, better known to fans as B.B. King, was born on September 16, 1925. His childhood was spent in the small town of Itta Bena, Mississippi, near Indianola. King bought his first guitar for $15 at the age of twelve. At the time he was singing in a local gospel group. When he was 18, Riley left Mississippi after getting a job as a tractor driver. At 21, King travelled to Memphis, Tennessee to live with his cousin, Bukka White. Bukka was an accomplished blues musician, and an inspiration to young King. His cousin took him in for 10 months, but when King fell on hard times he returned to Mississippi for a couple of years to get back on his feet.
When he made his way to Memphis in 1948, King took a job as a singer and DJ for a local radio station. At the station he earned the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy”, which was later shortened to B.B. While working at WDIA, B.B. King met early electric guitar pioneer T-Bone Walker and decided that whatever it took, short of stealing, he would have his own electric guitar. King saved money from his gig at the radio station, and his day job making fuel tanks for service stations, and purchased his first electric guitar. It was a black Gibson with f-holes, the first Lucille.
By 1949, King had a contract with Bullet records. The single he produced under that label, “Miss Martha King” did not do well in the charts. The song was written about his wife at the time, Martha Lee Denton. Later that year B.B. would sign with RPM Records and begin making recordings with Sam Phillips, who would go on to found Sun Records and become one of the biggest names in the early rock scene. King had better success under the direction of Phillips and in the next few years successfully toured across the United States, performing in all of the major markets.
In 1956, King had his most successful tour yet, performing 342 concerts. He would use his success to launch his own record label, Blues Boys Kingdom. Unfortunately for his business, King’s schedule left him very little time to run a record company and Blues Boys Kingdom failed. His own music career thrived, however. During the 50s, King had over a dozen hit records. His success continued throughout the 60s and his song, “The Thrill is Gone”, managed to become a hit not only on the R&B charts, but the pop charts as well. Such crossover success was rare at the time for an R&B artist. His visibility to non-R&B audiences would continue when he performed as an opening act for The Rolling Stones, in their famous 1969 American Tour.
In 1980, B.B. King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Since then, he recorded with less frequency than he had in his early career, but remained in the public eye. In 1988, he performed with U2 on their single “When Love Comes to Town” from the “Rattle and Hum” album. In 1998, King appeared in the feature film, Blues Brothers 2000. He played the part of the lead singer of The Louisiana Gator Boys. In 2000 he recorded an album with Eric Clapton, just one of many who had been inspired to play by King. The album was called “Riding with the King” and won a Grammy in 2001 for Best Traditional Blues Album. During this time he also appeared in several popular television shows.
King booked a farewell tour in 2006 at the age of 80. While in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a journalist asked King if it would really be his last tour. King responded by saying, “One of my favorite actors is a man from Scotland named Sean Connery. Most of you know him as James Bond, 007. He made a movie called Never Say Never Again.”
His famous guitar got the name Lucille while King was playing at a club in Twist, Arkansas. Two men got into a fight over a woman and knocked over a barrel of burning kerosene that was being used to heat the club. The building quickly caught fire and had to be evacuated. After safely exiting the club, King realized that he had left his guitar inside and ran into the burning building to get it. He later found out that the woman the men were fighting over was named Lucille. He gave his guitar that name to, in his words, “remind me never to do a thing like that again”. There have been many Lucilles since that day in 1949, but each one has inherited the name.