B.B. King

(1925 – 2015)

The combination of B.B. King’s gut wrenching vocals and his distinctive guitar style — marked by stinging vibrato, deft phrasing and fluid string bending — has made him one on the most recognizable, successful and influential Blues performers of all time.

King was born Riley B. King on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, where his father abandoned the family when King was 4. Raised mostly by his grandmother, he worked the cotton fields and sang gospel by day, and played blues guitar on street corners for dimes by night. In 1947, King hitchhiked north to the thriving music scene of Memphis, Tenn., to pursue his dream of a career in music. His first break came in 1948, when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson's radio program on KWEM, which led to steady gigs and his own show on the Memphis station WDIA. In need of a catchy disc-jockey name, he adopted the moniker “Beale Street Blues Boy,” later shortened to “Blues Boy King” and eventually B.B. King.

In the following years King became one of the most important names in R&B music. Between 1951 and 1985, he placed an extraordinary 74 entries on Billboard's R&B charts, and indelibly influenced a generation of Blues and Blues-Rock guitar players, from Eric Clapton to Michael Bloomfield. King was also one of the first performers to move Blues out of clubs and present it more formally to audiences in theaters. Accompanied by the trademark Gibson guitar he dubbed “Lucille,” King routinely played over 300 shows a year. In 1971 King won a Grammy award for "The Thrill Is Gone," which became his signature song. The song proved so popular it crossed over and peaked at No. 15 on the Pop charts, a rarity for a Blues single.

In 1988, King reached a new generation of fans when he collaborated with the band U2 on the hit single "When Love Comes to Town." In 2006 he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom – one of a string of honors that includes a Grammy award for lifetime achievement and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. King died in his sleep on May 14, 2015, after a series of illnesses. He was laid to rest at the B.B. King Museum in his hometown of Indianola, Mississippi.