B.B. King's Life in Photos - Rolling Stone
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B.B. King’s Life in Photos

From his days as a Memphis disc jockey to jamming with Bono and Eric Clapton, a journey through the life of a blues legend


B.B. King with with his guitar, New York City in 1971.

Anthony Barboza/Getty

B.B. King started singing gospel songs on a Mississippi street corner as a teen and grew into the world's unrivaled ambassador of the blues. His indelible style defined the genre, and in addition to scores of Grammys and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, Eric Clapton has called him "the most important artist the blues has ever produced." King died on Thursday, May 14th, after a decades-long battle with diabetes. Remember his career's pivotal moments in photos, then check out his five greatest live performances, our full obituary and our definitive 1998 profile, On the Bus With B.B. King.

B.B. King

MEMPHIS, TN - 1948: Blues Musician B.B. King performs on the radio station WDIA in 1948 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Colin Escott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Colin Escott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Radio Days

B.B. King performs on the radio station WDIA in 1948 in Memphis, Tennessee. Early radio appearances like this helped him build an audience all over the south. 

B.B. King

MEMPHIS - CIRCA 1948: Young blues singer B.B. King a local DJ at WDIA poses for a portrait circa 1948 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

On the Dial

By the time he was 27, King was well-known for his appearances on Memphis radio station WDIA. Their 1948 portrait of King remains one of his most iconic images.

B.B. King

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of American Blues singer and guitarist B.B. King (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

GAB Archive/Getty

Blues Baby

King poses for a portrait in 1950, just one year after his first singles "Miss Martha King" and "Got the Blues" came out. It was the beginning of a nearly 65-year career. 

B.B. King

CIRCA 1952: Blues legend BB King poses for a portrait with band leader Johnny Otis in circa 1952. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

B.B. and Johnny

King with band leader Johnny Otis circa 1952.

B.B. King

NEW YORK - 1963: Blues musician B.B. King performs onstage with his Gibson hollowbody electric guitar nicknamed "Lucille" and back up dancers in 1963 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

Live at the Apollo

B.B. King performs with his Gibson guitar "Lucille" and backup dancers in 1963 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The previous October, James Brown recorded his famous live album at the same venue. 

B.B. King

NEW YORK - 1967: Blues guitarist B.B. King (on the left), Eric Clapton and Elvin Bishop (right) perform together onstage in 1967 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

An Early Ride With the King

In the mid-Sixties, a new generation of guitarists were taking their inspiration directly from King. Here's the guitarist, Eric Clapton and Elvin Bishop in New York City circa 1967. It was the beginning of a long friendship between Clapton and King. 

B.B. King

American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist B.B. King plays the guitar with his eyes clenched closed as he performs on stage at Central Park, New York, New York, June 13, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)

David Fenton/Getty

The ‘Thrill’ Is Born

King onstage at New York's Central Park on June 13th, 1969. It was the same month "The Thrill Is Gone" landed in record shops. It would become his signature song.

B.B. King

1971 GRAMMY AWARDS - The 13th Annual Grammy Awards - Airdate: March 16, 1971. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) B.B. KING


Grammy Time

Backstage at the 1971 Grammy Awards, where "The Thrill Is Gone" won Best R&B Male Vocal Performance. 

B.B. King

LONDON - JUNE 1971: B.B. King poses for a portrait with his Gibson electric hollowbody guitar nicknamed 'Lucille' in the studio with drummer Ringo Starr during the recording of his album 'B.B. King In London' which was recorded on June 9-16 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Meet a Beatle

King went to England in June 1971 to record B.B. King in London, which featured Ringo Starr on three tracks. 

B.B. King

LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1975: Blues guitarist B.B. King appears on "American Bandstand" with host Dick Clark in circa 1975 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

Jamming on the Bandstand

When B.B. King appeared on American Bandstand in the Seventies, he refused to lip sync, becoming one of the few musicians to ever play live on the show. 

B.B. King

(GERMANY OUT) B. B. King; Musiker, Jazz; USA - Auftritt - 1977 (Photo by Jazz Archiv Hamburg/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Jazz Archiv Hamburg/ullstein bild/Getty

King Size

B.B. King spent much of his life on the road. Here he is at a 1977 show, the same year he released the LP King Size. 

B.B. King

Blues guitarist BB King performs on stage at Hammersmith Odeon, London, 14th October 1978. (Photo by Dick Barnatt/Redferns)

Dick Barnatt/Getty

Direct From London

English audiences embraced B.B. King early on and never let go. This picture was taken at London's Hammersmith Odeon on October 14th, 1978. 

B.B. King

BERKELEY, CA-OCTOBER 4: Joni Mitchell & B.B. King performing together at the Bread & Roses Festival at the Greek Theater in Berkeley on October 4, 1980. (Photo by Clayton Call/Redferns)

Clayton Call/Getty

Bread and Roses

In October 1980, King played at the Bread & Roses Festival at the Berkeley's Greek Theater. Neil Young, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen and Taj Mahal were also on the bill. King performed with Joni Mitchell, who is on the left. 

B.B. King

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Photo of Les PAUL and BB KING; w/ Les Paul (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Ebet Roberts/Getty

Guitar Summit

King was one of many performers to honor Les Paul (left) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1988. He shared the bill with Eddie Van Halen, David Gilmour, Steve Miller and Waylon Jennings. 

B.B. King

NETHERLANDS - JANUARY 05: AHOY Photo of U2 and BONO and BB KING, Bono and BB King performing on stage - Love Town Tour (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)

Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty

B.B. and Bono Come to Town

King's career received a huge boost in 1988 when he appeared in U2's movie Rattle and Hum, where he sang "When Loves Comes to Town" with the band. In 1989-'90 they toured Europe together. 

B.B. King

US President George Bush (R) and First Lady Barbara Bush (C) present the National Medal of Arts to blues musician B.B. King on September 10, 1990 at the white House. King was one of 12 recipients who were singled out for their important contributions to the cultural life of the United States. AFP PHOTO LUKE FRAZZA (Photo credit should read LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images)

Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty

A White House Honor

President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush present King with the National Medal of Arts on September 10th, 1990 at the White House. 

B.B. King

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - 14th JULY: NORTH SEA JAZZ FESTIVAL Photo of BB KING, North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, 14th July 1995. (Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)

Paul Bergen/Getty

The Never Ending Tour

Bob Dylan is said to be on a so-called Never Ending Tour, but B.B. King always played far more shows a year. Here he is at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam on July 14th 1995.

B.B. King

BB King during TNT's "A Very Special Christmas" concert celebrating Special Olympics to air on TNT on December 19, 2000 at BILL CLINTON1 in Washington, DC, United States. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)

Kevin Mazur/Getty

Christmas With the King

In December 2000, King played TNT's A Very Special Christmas to honor the the Special Olympics. 

B.B. King

American Blues musicians BB King (left) and Bo Diddley (1928 - 2008) play guitars at the Second Anniversary Celebration of BB King Blues Club and Grill (in Times Square), New York, New York, June 20, 2002. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

Jack Vartoogian/Getty

Bo Knows B.B.

The B.B. King Blues Club & Grill has been hosting concerts in New York's Times Square for the past 15 years. Here is King (left) and Bo Diddley celebrating the club's second anniversary on June 20th, 2002.

B.B. King

Kevin Mazur/Getty

Scorsese’s Blues Crew

To promote his seven-part PBS documentary The Blues, Martin Scorsese organized a massive blues concert at Radio City Music Hall on February 7th, 2003. King shared the bill with Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, the Neville Brothers, Macy Gray and members of Aerosmith. 

B.B. King

LAS VEGAS - DECEMBER 11: B.B. King performs at the grand opening of B.B. Kings Blues Club on December 11, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage)

Denise Truscello/Getty

B.B. in Vegas

A new B.B. King Blues Club opened in Las Vegas on December 11th, 2009, and the man himself was there to play on the first night. 

In This Article: B.B. King

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