B. B. King was born September 16, 1925.
Riley B. King was born to a poor family of sharecroppers living on the Mississippi Delta, near the town of Itta Bene, Miss. King’s home life was very unstable and as a child he picked cotton to help with the family income. But King’s mother brought him to church regularly, where he was first exposed to gospel music; he even learned some basic guitar skills from his preacher.
In the 1940s he performed on street corners around nearby Indianola, Miss., worked as a truck driver and played guitar with a five-man chorus called “The Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers.” In 1947, with $2.50 in his pocket, King left Mississippi for Memphis to seek his fortune as a blues musician. Arriving in Memphis, King moved in with his cousin, blues man Bukka White, who spent nearly a year teaching him all the fine points of blues guitar.
King’s first big break came in 1948 when he performed live on KWEM, a radio station out of West Memphis. The successful radio debut led to a long-term agreement with competitor WDIA (one of the country’s first all-black radio stations), where King performed weekly in return for plugging a health tonic called Pepticon. He was soon promoted to DJ, and became known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, later changed to “Blues Boy King” and shortened to B.B. King.
In the 1950s, King became one of the most important names in R&B music, collecting an impressive list of hits under his belt that included songs like “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,” “Sneakin’ Around,” “Ten Long Years,” “Bad Luck,” “Sweet Little Angel,” “On My Word of Honor,” and “Please Accept My Love”. In 1962, King signed to ABC-Paramount Records. In November 1964, King recorded Live at the Regal album at the Regal Theater in Chicago, Illinois.
King first found success outside of the blues market with the 1969 remake of the Roy Hawkins tune, “The Thrill Is Gone”, which became a hit on both pop and R&B charts, which was rare for an R&B artist. He gained further rock visibility as an opening act on The Rolling Stones’ much-ballyhooed 1969 American Tour. King’s mainstream success continued throughout the 1970s with songs like “To Know You Is to Love You” and “I Like to Live the Love.” From 1951 to 1985, King appeared on Billboard’s R&B charts an amazing 74 times.
The 1980s, 1990s and 2000s saw King recording less and less, but appearing on numerous television shows, major motion pictures and performing 300 nights a year. In 1988, he reached a new generation of fans via the single “When Love Comes To Town”, together with the Irish band U2 on their Rattle and Hum album. In 2000, King teamed up with guitarist Eric Clapton to record Riding With the King. In June 2006, King was present at a memorial of his first radio broadcast at the Three Deuces Building in Greenwood, Mississippi, where an official marker of the Mississippi Blues Trail was erected.
In the mid-1950s, while B.B. was performing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas, a few fans became unruly. Two men got into a fight and knocked over a kerosene stove, setting fire to the hall. B.B. raced outdoors to safety with everyone else, then realized that he left his beloved $30 acoustic guitar inside, so he rushed back inside the burning building to retrieve it, narrowly escaping death. When he later found out that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he decided to give the name to his guitar to remind him never to do a crazy thing like fight over a woman. Ever since, each one of B.B.’s trademark Gibson guitars has been called Lucille.