B. B. King
Riley "B.B." King has been called the King of the Blues, and indeed he reigns across the decades as one of the pre-eminent figures in the medium. He is best-known for his distinctive single-note guitar sound, played on a guitar that he calls "Lucille," in which he bends strings till the notes seem to cry. It is a style that emanates from his blues roots deep in Mississippi while also drawing on other influences, ranging from jazz and gospel to pop and rock. Primary influences include guitarists include T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian, who similarly hybridized jazz and blues in a big-band context.
A gracious and articulate man, King is also known as the foremost ambassador of the blues. It was he who, in the postwar era (and especially the Sixties and Seventies), took the blues from the fringes of American music and brought it to the mainstream. King's influence on a generation of rock and blues guitarists - including Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Stevie Ray Vaughan - has been inestimable. Virtually every modern stylist has, to some degree, been influenced by the sweetly stinging sound of his guitar.
Born in Indianola, Mississippi, in 1925, King moved to Memphis, Tennessee in his early twenties to make his living playing the blues. He landed a regular spot as a deejay and performer on radio station WDIA, where he became known as the Beale Street Blues Boy (hence, "B.B."). King also built a reputation as a hot guitarist at the Beale Street blues clubs, performing with a loose-knit group known as the Beale Streeters (which also included Bobby Blue Bland, a longtime friend and collaborator of Kings). King began recording in 1949 and had his first hit, "Three O'Clock Blues," on the RPM label two years later. The song topped the rhythm & blues chart for 17 weeks, and King toured nationally behind it, performing at such venues as New York's Apollo Theater. Other numbers that became associated with King in the Fifties include "Sweet Black Angel," "Rock Me Baby" and "Every Day I Have the Blues."
In 1961, King left RPM for ABC-Paramount Records. The in-concert LPs he released there - particularly 1962's Live at the Regal, a black Chicago nightspot - are regarded as classics of the genre. All the while, King continued his ceaseless touring (he reportedly did 342 shows one year) while broadening his base of support beyond to a new audience of white listeners who'd begun tuning into the blues in the mid-Sixties. King's increasingly sophisticated and eclectic approach found him pushing the blues in new directions and yielded such breakthrough recordings as "The Thrill Is Gone," a pop-blues song that featured King's soulful voice and eloquent guitar over a backdrop of strings.