The King of the Blues
After 60 Years of Making Music, B.B. King Continues to Wow Audiences Young and Old
by Sara Diaz, age 16
B.B. King, also known as the King of the Blues, started his career as a young boy in the 1940’s. He is still going strong to this day.
Growing up in Bena, Mississippi, young Riley B. King performed on street corners, earning pocket change. With hopes of building a career in music, King hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, where anyone in the South could take their first steps in making it big. Once in Memphis, he stayed with his cousin, Bukka White, a famous blues performers at the time. Bukka taught King the basics of the blues.
King’s first official gig was on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM in West Memphis. He was favorably noticed and got more opportunities to perform. King took a steady job performing at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill, and eventually got a regular ten-minute spot on the black-managed Memphis radio station, WDIA. “King’s Spot” became so popular that it expanded and was renamed the “Sepia Swing Club.”
King soon decided he needed a stage name. He started as Beale Street Blues Boy, then Blues Boy King, and finally B.B. King.
During one of King’s performances at a dance, things didn’t go quite as planned. Two men got into a fight, and in the process, knocked over a kerosene stove, setting fire to the building. Everyone escaped safely, but King decided to go back and rescue his beloved guitar, risking his life.
Later that night, King found out that the two men were fighting over a girl named Lucille. As a reminder to never to do something as ridiculous as fighting over a girl, King named his guitar Lucille.
After his number one hit, “Three O’ Clock Blues,” King’s career took off and he started to tour nationally. He performed in various cafes, dance halls, concert halls, universities, hotels and more. People connected easily with his soft and skilled guitar playing, in combination with his warm, raspy voice.
“When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille,” King said.
He was given the opportunity to open for the Rolling Stones. He became an icon and a blues legend. He was put into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, not only once, but twice, in 1984 and 1987. He received a “Lifetime Achievement” Grammy Award, and has earned honorary doctorates from a variety of colleges and universities. In 2007 he was honored with the National Award of Distinction from the University of Mississippi.
Over the years, King has opened quite a few of his own clubs across America, especially in big cities like New York City and Los Angeles.
B.B King loves the blues too much to retire. So his long and distinguished career goes on. At 87, he’s stilling playing for devoted audiences.