“Blues is a tonic for whatever ails you. I could play the blues and then not be blue anymore,” blues legend B. B. King once reflected. He recorded nearly four dozen albums in his long career and performed before countless fans. He did not spend much time in Arkansas in his long life, but some of the most important moments in his career as a blues singer took place in the state.
He was born Riley B. King in September 1925 into a family of sharecroppers in Northwest Mississippi near the town of Itta Bena. In a childhood fit for the blues, it was a life of hard work in the cotton fields, grinding poverty, and an unstable family life where his mother abandoned his father and all their children for another man.
Music became a part of his life through church, a musically-inclined family that included blues pioneer and cousin Bukka White, and the rise of the blues from music across the Mississippi Delta. His first musical performance was in the choir of Elkhorn Baptist Church in nearby Kilmichael as a young child where the preacher often accompanied the choir on guitar. The preacher reportedly gave King his first lessons after he found him playing with his guitar one day. And soon afterward, King acquired his first guitar. He took a series of jobs as a teenager but also tried to pick up gigs in various bands and even playing on street corners. In 1947, he hitchhiked to Memphis, seeking a future in music.
It was in West Memphis where King solidified his reputation as a blues performer. He made his first radio appearance on popular local blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on station KWEM in West Memphis in 1948. Williamson, impressed with King, kept inviting him back; and King steadily built an audience in the process. King picked up steady work at local clubs and restaurants, including an almost nightly gig at one restaurant in West Memphis. He became a disc jockey at Memphis station WDIA, where he often performed his own songs. He picked up the nickname “Blues Boy,” which was shortened to “B. B.”
No B. B. King performance would have been possible without his work on the guitar. He took an ordinary Gibson guitar and created a masterpiece of blues with each song. He took to calling each of his guitars “Lucille.” King often retold the story of how the guitar got the name. In 1949, while still a young man playing small clubs and trying make a name for himself, he played at a small dance hall and bar in the Northeast Arkansas community of Twist. Reportedly, two men got into a fight over a woman named Lucille and knocked over a kerosene-filled barrel, quickly engulfing the club in flames. King and others ran out as quickly as they could. Once outside, King realized he had left his guitar and ran inside the burning building to rescue it. He named the guitar – and every guitar he played afterward – Lucille as a reminder.
In 1951, he recorded his first hit single, “3 O’Clock Blues.” It went to the top of the charts. He had several other number one hits before he recorded his first album, Singin’ the Blues in 1956. His touring schedule was exhausting. In some years, he had more than 300 different appearances in just as many cities across the country while still managing to record new albums. King scored 16 albums in the top ten and nearly two dozen top ten singles, including the unforgettable “The Thrill is Gone” in 1970.
By the 1980s, he was already regarded as a legend, having been inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He appeared in movies and on television shows from Sesame Street to Sanford and Son. In 1988, he recorded “When Love Comes to Town,” with Irish rock band U2 which peaked at number two on the charts. King enjoyed collaborations with other artists. In his long career, he performed with such legendary musicians as Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, and Jimi Hendrix. “Red, white, black, or yellow, rich or poor, we all have the blues,” said King.
He played well into his ninth decade. “I never use that word, retire,” he once said. He died in 2015 at age 89.
Kenneth Bridges is a professor of history at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado.