Blues icon B.B. King often said in interviews that the blues and country music were “first cousins.” Riley B. “Blues Boy” King was born on this day in 1925, and is being paid tribute in today’s Google Doodle, which depicts the legendary musician playing his signature guitar, “Lucille.” Hitchhiking to Memphis in 1947 from his home in tiny Itta Bena, Mississippi, King would soon become one of the most renowned blues musicians in the world. While he excelled as a solo artist King also collaborated with a number of acts outside blues, including U2, appearing in the band’s 1988 documentary, Rattle & Hum.
The close relationship of country and blues, a subject explored in Sunday night’s premiere episode of Ken Burns’ Country Music on PBS, and referenced throughout the series, is one King would understand at an early age. “Most of the good lyrics that tell about men and women come from country music,” he’s quoted as saying in author David McGee’s biography, There Is Always One More Time. Noting that he would listen to country music on his dad’s Zenith radio with “a battery the same size that you would have in your car today,” King recalled hearing country legends Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Cowboy Copas, Bill Monroe and more, and added that “I could put C-E-G-B-flat together in country music before I could do blues. Long before.” King was also an enthusiastic fan of Jimmie Rodgers and when he first picked up the guitar as a youngster was inspired to try and imitate the slide effect he was hearing Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe play.
King’s forays into country music territory included the 1982 LP Love Me Tender, a poorly received collection that nevertheless featured his versions of songs by country giants Willie Nelson (“Night Life”), Don Gibson (“(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time”), and Mickey Newbury (“Time Is a Thief”), among others. But in 1990, King teamed with Randy Travis on a track for the country superstar’s Heroes & Friends LP. “Waiting on the Light to Change” is a jubilant gospel-tinged number dedicated to the idea of personal rejuvenation. The tune kicks off with King’s familiar guitar playing and features the then-65-year-old singing the song’s first verse before Travis takes the second. The two then swap lines, with King optimistically declaring, “I lose my way now and then but better days are just around the bend.” King and Travis were Grammy-nominated for their performance on this track. He would also score a second country-related Grammy nomination in 1995 after working with George Jones, who recorded Clarence Carter’s “Patches” with King for the landmark Rhythm, Country and Blues compilation.
Although diagnosed with type II diabetes the same year he sang with Travis, King seemed to tackle his career with the same kind of optimism expressed in their duet. He remained extraordinarily active on the concert stage throughout the remainder of his life and went on to record and perform with several country artists including Marty Stuart, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Willie Nelson and more. King died on May 15th, 2015, at 89 years old.