B.B. King, a songwriter and guitarist, is the focus of today’s Google Doodle. He’s commonly referred to as the “King of the Blues,” and is considered to be among the genre’s most groundbreaking and influential artists. September 16th would have been his 94th birthday.
“King opened for the Rolling Stones on tour and became the first internationally acclaimed blues artist, winning 15 Grammy Awards, being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, receiving honorary doctorates from assorted universities, and performing at the White House,” states the Google Doodle. “Embodying the traveling bluesman, King was also known for averaging more than 300 shows a year throughout various points in his career.”
Here’s what you need to know about B.B. King:
1. King Sang In the Gospel Choir & Bought His First Guitar At Age 12
B.B. King was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925 in Itta Bena, Mississippi. He was the son of sharecroppers Albert and Nora Ella King, but his mother left his father for another man, so he was raised by his maternal grandmother from the age of four. According to Jazz and Blues Masters, King developed an interest in music when he joined the gospel choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church.
The minister used a guitar during his services, and he taught King his first three chords. King bought his first guitar at age 12, and in 1943, he decided to leave his hometown and play with the Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers of Inverness, Mississippi. He kicked out for the next few years, but it wasn’t until 1948 that he experienced a breakthrough. He performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas, and he proved so popular with listeners that he later recorded a ten-minute spot on the Memphis radio station WDIA.
It was during his tenure at WDIA that he gained his famous nickname. The disc jockeys called him “Beale Street Blues Boy”, which was later shortened to “Blues Boy”, and finally to “B.B.” King’s profile continued to rise as he performed with notable musicians Bobby Bland, Johnny Ace and Earl Forrest in a group called the Beale Streeter.
2. He Signed with RPM Records & Went on to Become One of the Biggest Blues Stars of the 1950s
King signed with RPM Records in 1949, and he scored his first hit single with “3 ‘Clock Blues.” The single topped the Billboard R&B charts in 1951, and was the first in a series of popular tracks that included “You Know I Love You”, “Woke Up This Morning”, “Please Love Me”, “When My Heart Beats like a Hammer”, “Whole Lotta Love”, “You Upset Me Baby”, “Every Day I Have the Blues”, and “Sneakin’ Around.”
By the middle of the decade, King’s weekly earnings had jumped from $85 to $2,50, and he was selling out venues like the Howard Theater in Washington and the Apollo Theater in New York. In 1956 alone, King performed 342 concerts and released his debut studio album, Singin’ the Blues, which included five charting singles. While his dominance on the charts waned as he entered the next decade, King still released several notable works.
In 1964, King recorded Live at the Regal, which would go on influence a generation of guitarists, and is now considered to be one of the finest blues albums of all time. King also scored the biggest hit of his career with the 1970 single “The Thrill Is Gone.” The single peaked at number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, and would go on to win a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
3. King Was a Major Influence on Guitarists Like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards & Jimi Hendrix
King agreed to open for the Rolling Stones during the American leg of their 1969 tour. The tour exposed him to a new generation of fans, and rejuvenated his career in terms of record sales. King also became a revered figure among the younger musicians. Some of the guitarists who consider King to be an inspiration are Kieth Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton. “I think he found his voice early on with the guitar,” Clapton told Louder Sound. “He found a way to condense it.”
“When I first heard him it would have been Sweet 16 (Part 1 & 2). It’s a mono recording, and he’s obviously playing live with a big orchestra,” Clapton added. “I immediately recognized that he was playing guitar like he sings. His voice is answering the guitar. No other blues guitar player can do that in the same way. BB sings with his guitar.” King and Clapton would go on to record a collaborative album, Riding With the King, in 2000.
King reflected on his influence during an interview with Up Worthy. “I don’t like to feel that I owe anything. I like to feel that I paid my own way,” he said. “And when people give me all these great compliments, I thank them but still go back to my room to practice. I am not inventing anything that’s going to stop cancer or muscular dystrophy. But I like to feel that my time and talent is always there for the people that need it.”
4. King Was Married Twice & Reportedly Fathered Over 15 Children
King was wed twice during his lifetime. He married Martha Lee Denton in 1946 and they divorced in 1952. He married Sue Carol Hall in 1958, but their union similarly ended in divorce in 1966. The latter inspired him to record his cover of “The Thrill Is Gone.” King attributes the failure of both these marriages to his grueling tour schedule, and the fact that he prioritized his music career over his personal life.
King reflected on his single life during an interview with Guitar.com. “I can say I’m a country guy. I came out of the country and they never did get it out of me,” he explained. “So it’s still there. I don’t fool around a lot so, I’m not married. I’m divorced. I’m tryin’ to think of a saying I want to say, but it all leads to just being a regular guy. Just a regular guy.” King famously named his guitar Lucille, after seeing two men brawl over a woman with the same name. He named each subsequent guitar Lucille as a reminder to “never do a thing like that.”
King reportedly fathered 15 children through his relationships with different women. He did not dispute the paternity of any of these alleged children, and agreed to pay college tuition, as well as set up trust funds for each of them. Despite his compliance, there is some speculation that these children were not King’s. Charles Sawyer, who wrote The Arrival of B.B. King: The Authorized Biography, points out that King did not have children with either of his wives, and states that the musician was said to have had a low sperm count.
5. King Died In His Sleep from Vascular Dementia In 2015
King died on May 14, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CNN reports that his death was caused by vascular dementia, after a series of small strokes. He was 89. Two of King’s daughters, Karen Williams and Patty King, claimed that the musician had been poisoned in his sleep. “I believe my father was poisoned and that he was administered foreign substances to induce his premature death,” they said in their affidavits. “I believe my father was murdered.”
John Fudenberg, the coroner for Clark County, Nevada, said that initial autopsy results found “no evidence to substantiate the allegations” made by the children. King’s funeral was held at the Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Indianola, and some of the celebrities who sent in messages were Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder and President Barack Obama. He was laid to rest at the B.B. King Museum.
King received numerous accolades and awards during his lifetime, including inductions into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Official Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2014.