This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special.
Last week, we listened to the Good News as told by Blind Willie Johnson
This week, we’ll start on the “Three Kings of the Blues” with B.B. King.
Here’s what we know: Riley B. King was born on a cotton plantation near Indianola, MS on September 16, 1925 to two sharecroppers, Albert and Nora Ella King. King’s parents split up when he was four years old and he was raised by his grandmother, Elnora Farr.
B.B. King’s musicianship started in the choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church. The minister of his church played guitar during the services and taught B.B. King his first three chords. When he was twelve years old, he purchased his first guitar.
In 1943, B.B. King started performing at churches and juke joints in the area and on the radio with the Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers. Over the next few years, he gained a fair bit of popularity in the Memphis and northern Mississippi area and got job at a Memphis radio station as a musician and a DJ, where he was nicknamed “Blues Boy” King, shortened to B.B. King.
In 1949, King started recording for RPM Records and in 1952, he hit #1 on the Billboard R&B charts with “3 O’Clock Blues”. His career was massively successful over the next five decades and he became one of the best-known bluesmen of all time. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Official R&B Music Hall of Fame in 2014.
B.B. King passed away on May 14, 2015 from vascular dementia caused by his type-2 diabetes. On May 27, his funeral procession went down Beale Street in Memphis with a brass band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Thousands of mourners turned out to pay their respects to King. He was finally laid to rest at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, MS.
B.B. King’s music has a distinctive sound. He taught himself to play the guitar listening to a Delta blues program on the radio while working on the plantation. His notable use of the higher register on his guitar was a product of his poor knowledge of chords and trouble hearing lower notes. This combination led to one of the most identifiable signature sounds in music history, though, and influenced musicians from all over the world, including Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana.
B.B. King helped bring the blues to popular consciousness all over the world. His tuxedo and Gibson ES-355 are immediately identifiable. He is one of the most ubiquitous artists ever. When you think of the blues, B.B. King is most probably what comes to mind. It’s impossible to imagine the blues today, or music for that matter, without B.B. King playing some role. Head down to any BBQ joint in your town and B.B. King is probably on the radio. Order yourself a rack of ribs and a round of beers to raise a toast to B.B. King, by the Grace of God, one of the Three Kings of the Blues, Defender of the Faith. Long Live the King!