B.B. King is the most famous of the modern bluesmen. Playing his trademark Gibson guitar, which he refers to affectionately as Lucille, King's lyrical leads and left-hand vibrato have influenced numerous rock guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. A fifteen-time Grammy winner, King has received virtually every music award, including the Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 1987.
Born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, he picked cotton as a youth. In the Forties he played on the streets of Indianola before moving on to perform professionally in Memphis around 1949. As a young musician, he studied recordings by both blues and jazz guitarists, including T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, and Django Reinhardt.
In the early Fifties King was a disc jockey on the Memphis black station WDIA, where he was dubbed the "Beale Street Blues Boy." Eventually, Blues Boy was shortened to B.B., and the nickname stuck. The radio show and performances in Memphis with friends Johnny Ace and Bobby "Blue" Bland built King's strong local reputation. One of his first recordings, "Three O'Clock Blues" (Number One R&B), for the RPM label, was a national success in 1951. During the Fifties, King was a consistent record seller and concert attraction.
King's 1965 Live at the Regal is considered one of the definitive blues albums. The mid-Sixties blues revival introduced him to white audiences, and by 1966 he was appearing regularly on rock concert circuits and receiving airplay on progressive rock radio. He continued to have hits on the soul chart ("Paying the Cost to Be the Boss," Number Ten R&B, 1968) and always maintained a solid black following. Live and Well was a notable album, featuring "Why I Sing the Blues" (Number 13 R&B, 1969) and King's only pop Top Twenty single, "The Thrill Is Gone" (Number 15 pop, Number Three R&B, 1970).
In the Seventies King also recorded albums with longtime friend and onetime chauffeur Bobby Bland: the gold Together for the First Time...Live (1974) and Together Again...Live (1976). Stevie Wonder produced King's "To Know You Is to Love You." In 1982 King recorded a live album with the Crusaders.
King's tours have taken him to Russia (1979), South America (1980), and to dozens of prisons. In 1981 There Must Be a Better World Somewhere won a Grammy Award; he won another in 1990 for Live at San Quentin. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1990 he received the Songwriters Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award. In May 1991, he opened B.B. King's Blues Club in Memphis. (A second one opened in New York City in 2000.)
In 1989 he sang and played with U2 on "When Love Comes to Town," from their Rattle and Hum. The four-disc box set released that same year, King of the Blues, begins with King's career-starting single "Miss Martha King," originally released on Bullet in 1949. For Blues Summit, in 1993, King was joined by such fellow bluesmen as John Lee Hooker, Lowell Fulson, and Robert Cray.
King once said he aspired to be an "ambassador of the blues," and by the Nineties he seemed to have attained just that iconic status. In 1995 he received the Kennedy Center Honors. The next year saw the publication of his award-winning autobiography, Blues' All Around Me (coauthored with David Ritz).
In 2000 the double-platinum Riding With the King (with Eric Clapton) topped Billboard's Top Blues Albums chart. King continued to record, perform and win honors during the first decade of the 2000s. President George W. Bush awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006. Two years later, he released one of the most critically acclaimed studio albums of his career, the back-to-the-basics One Kind Favor, produced by T Bone Burnett and featuring King doing stripped-down version of blues classics such as Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean."
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.