“I stepped out of Mississippi when I was ten years old with a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart made of gold. I had a guitar hangin’ just above waist high, and I’m going to play this thing until the day I die.” Those were words spoken by the legendary B.B. King in the song “Riding With the King,” which he performed with Eric Clapton.
Born on September 16, 1925 on a plantation in Itta Bena, MS, Riley B. King was one of the most well known-figures in music over the past 67 years. King played over 15,000 shows, influenced thousands of musicians, was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame and has accomplished more in his lifetime than most people could in two lifetimes. Sadly, on May 14, at the age of 89 he was taken from this world.
The blues is a genre of music born from pain, raised by a culture that was mistreated, but came to be loved by millions of people all over the world. To earn the title “King of Blues,” couldn’t have been an easy feat. When he started playing in the ‘40s, King was surrounded by tons of talented blues players like Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. To be in the same company as these folks and so many more amazing players and still be given the title of “King” is a compliment like no other.
In the early ‘40s King would play on street corners and go from town to town surviving off the dimes he made from playing. By 1947 he made his way to Memphis and officially began his musical career. Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s he gained popularity all over the world and helped make the blues one of the most demanded styles of music in the world. He didn’t stop there though, after almost seven decades of creating music he has been known to play as many as 300 or more shows a year and has released over 50 albums.
King has rarely been seen without good ole’ Lucille by his side. The first guitar to be given this name by B.B. was a $30 acoustic guitar he saved from being reduced to ashes in a fire that burnt down a bar he was playing in in the ‘50s. The story goes that two men were fighting and knocked over a kerosene lamp, starting the fire. After King had escaped, he realized he had left his beloved guitar inside and ran back into the burning building to save it. Later he learned that the two men had been fighting over a woman named Lucille, the same name he has given each of his signature Gibson’s ever since.
Although he is known primarily known as a blues guitarist, he has influenced musicians of every genre over his almost 70-year career. Without King there is a chance there would be no Rolling Stones, no Led Zeppelin, no Aerosmith and no Black Sabbath. If you ask any rock guitarist from the ‘60s or ‘70s about their influences, there’s a good chance B.B King will be one of the names listed.
Other great blues greats like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Kenny Wayne Shepherd have all expressed just how much of an influence King has had on not only their playing, but their life as well. The way King played his guitar was a big reason for this. He played every note with passion, soul and intensity. His singing was fueled by that same passion and intensity and very much full of soul. When he sang you couldn’t help but to be drawn in and hypnotized by his deep, crooning voice.
B.B. King said he would be playing guitar until the day he died, and he stayed true to his word. Music has changed so much since King started playing but he always held a special placed in the hearts of music lovers and gained new fans from every generation that got to hear and see him play. There will never be another guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and person like King again. He was a one-of-a-kind musician that made a legacy that will last forever. Rest in peace Riley B. King.