In B.B. King, aspiring rockers discovered a profound emotional expression lacking in the era's other great influence, Chuck Berry. With his admirable work ethic, snappy clothes and positive disposition, King modulated the blues' roughest rural elements into an optimistic urbanity. He was both a fabulous entertainer and a real human being, self-effacing with a refreshing sense of humor. Championed early on by Paul Butterfield and Eric Clapton, King found the audience he deserved following the release of Live at the Regal in 1964. He modeled the blues as a viable way to earn a living onstage. Here are ten acts — rock, blues and beyond — that took his example and ran with it. (Also see King's 10 essential songs and our definitive 1998 profile, On the Bus With B.B. King.)
A voracious musical sponge, Jimi Hendrix absorbed B.B. King's urban blues alongside a panoply of more aggressive stylists. Hendrix covered "Every Day I Have the Blues" as a member of the Rocking Kings early in his career, and was known to turn up the bass on his amplifier to emulate King, whom he would interrogate for tips during run-ins on the package-tour circuit. Little Richard, with whom Hendrix played for several months, even criticized Hendrix for sounding too much like King. Leading his own trio, Hendrix would mimic B.B.'s sound by way of introducing King's "Rock Me Baby," and then took the Experience in another wild direction entirely. Yet "Hey Joe," the trio's hit single from Are You Experienced, is unimaginable without King's single-string inspiration, and Hendrix's unison guitar-vocal work in "Voodoo Chile" is straight out of King's playbook.
B.B. King, Eric Clapton wrote in his autobiography, is "without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced." The man who brought electric blues to the masses absorbed King's vocabulary during stints in the Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (Mayall hired him specifically for the resemblance). As a member of Cream, Clapton left the lion's share of writing to Jack Bruce and instead brought a handful of tasty blues covers to the trio. Clapton sped up King's licks and gave them a loud, fluid psychedelic twist on his stack of Marshall amps. His more soulful sound in Blind Faith honed closer to that of King, with whom he'd jammed memorably at New York's Cafe au Go Go in 1967. The two bluesmen finally collaborated on Riding With the King in 2000.
Pre-teenaged Carlos Santana fell under the influence of B.B. King as soon as he heard him on the radio in Tijuana. "I thought, 'Man, that's the stuff — this is the sort of music I want to do when I grow up,'" he recalled. And seeing King play at Bill Graham's Fillmore West for the first time after moving to San Francisco was a "revelation." When King hit his first note of the night, Santana says, "It was like a whole other world had opened up. I thought, 'Oh, that's how he does it. You go inside yourself to come out with this sound.'" Formed in 1967, the Carlos Santana Blues Band covered B.B. King songs in a Latin-rock style. Santana credits Hungarian jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó's Spellbinder for helping him escape King's spell, although never entirely.
Mike Bloomfield was one of rock's first instrumental superstars whose blues-guitar style was adopted largely from B.B. King. "[W]hen I'm playing blues guitar real well — that's when I'm not fooling around but I'm really into something — it's a lot like B.B. King," he said. Bloomfield earned his stripes in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and made rock history as the guitarist who "electrified" Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. ("I don't want any of the B.B. King shit, man," Dylan told him while recording Highway 61 Revisited.) Bloomfield relocated to San Francisco and formed the short-lived Electric Flag in 1967. When Bloomfield put aside his guitar and descended into a heroin abyss a few years later, it was B.B. who brought him out, imploring, "You can't let what you've got go to hell like that."
B.B. King was part of the package at the first rock show that Florida teenagers Duane and Gregg Allman ever attended. "Little brother," said Duane to Gregg, "we've got to get into this." Recording as the Hour Glass at Muscle Shoals' FAME Studio in 1969, Gregg and Duane combined "Sweet Little Angel," "It's My Own Fault" and "How Blue Can You Get" from King's 1964 Live at the Regal into the "B.B. King Medley," with Duane unabashedly appropriating King's bends and sustains. Equally significant was Regal's influence on the Allman Brothers Band's expansive double-set shows. Live at the Regal, Gregg Allman says in One Way Out, "is like one big long song, a giant medley. [King] never stopped. He just slammed it." Records like Regal, Allman continued, "are what got me into doing everything so meticulously — paying attention to arrangements, the order of the songs."
For fiery-fingered Johnny Winter, B.B. King was nothing less than a "blues saint." The first album Winter bought was King's 1957 LP Singin' the Blues and, three years later, he made it a point to jam with his idol at the Raven Club in his Beaumont, Texas hometown. Johnny, his brother Edgar, and a couple of friends were the only white guys in the club, so King, who'd been having tax problems, assumed they were with the Internal Revenue Service and made Winters show his union card before letting him sit in. "I'll see you down the line," said King after the set. Winters got his big break in 1968, when he played King's "It's My Own Fault" during a "supersession" at the Fillmore East with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. A few days after, Winter reportedly received the largest advance in recording history from Columbia Records.
In 1966, B.B. King devotee Peter Green joined John Mayall's Bluesbreakers to replace fellow King aficionado Eric Clapton. The following year, Green and the Bluesbreakers rhythm section — Mick Fleetwood and John McVie — quit and formed Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, a heavily blues-driven group that would achieve pop superstardom after Green's 1970 departure. In Fleetwood Mac, Green displayed exquisite form with instrumentals like "Albatross" and blues covers, most notably an unreleased take on King's "I've Got a Mind to Give Up Living." King, who once spent a week on tour with Fleetwood Mac, later said of Green, "He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats."
Arena-rocking guitar hero Billy Gibbons was so enthralled by B.B. King that he named his band after him. Sort of. Gazing at his Houston apartment walls in 1969, Gibbons saw posters featuring King and ZZ Hill. He liked the ZZ and King parts, but together not so much. But then he wondered: Isn't a king the top? King also inspired Gibbons' switch to light-gauge "slinky seven" strings when, he said, the older guitarist "happened to pick up an axe I stuck in the corner strung up with some gnarly, heavy wire and asked, 'Why you workin' so hard?'" In 2011, when King snagged the Number Six spot on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists list, Gibbons wrote: "He originated this one cut-to-the-bone phrase where he hits two notes, then jumps to another string and slides up to a note. I can do it in my sleep now. And there's this two- or three-note thing, where he bends the last note. Both figures never fail to get you moving."
Jimmie Vaughan's relatively straightforward yet emotionally fulfilling guitar style, from his days in the Fabulous Thunderbirds to his later solo career, was informed in large part by B.B. King's work in the Fifties and early Sixties. "The first time I got some money," Jimmie said, "I went down to the record store and bought all the albums by B.B. King." Jimmie, along with Albert King, would be the primary musical influence on younger brother Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose swinging virtuosity would spark yet another American blues revival. Stevie Ray's death in a 1990 helicopter crash "devastated" B.B. King, who said he felt like he had "lost part of myself" in the tragedy, adding, "The world had lost the man destined to become the greatest guitarist in the history of the blues."
In the Eighties and Nineties, Robert Cray was widely considered B.B. King's heir to the blues crown. His hit 1986 album Strong Persuader made the case for him as a sweet yet sassy singer, popular with both the men and the ladies, whose spare yet elegant guitar playing embodies King's sophisticated sensibility. Cray's popularity was due in large part to sheer affability, a quality he shares with King, and he naturally admires King both as musician and human being. "The gentleman that B.B. King is, he speaks to you in a gentlemanly way," says Cray, who noted on another occasion that King is "the nicest man walking the planet!" Cray may be too pop a player for some blues fans, but B.B. King is by no means a stranger to the charts himself.