B.B. King is one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. He was born in 1925 with the name Riley B. King but soon became known as B.B. to the music world. Like many blues singers, King grew up in the South. He was born in Itta Bene, Mississippi where he learned to play the guitar. He often traveled to nearby Indianola, Mississippi to play on street corners for loose change. He furthered his musical career by traveling around on Saturday nights and playing for tips in any bar that would let him in. By 1947 King had decided to pursue a musical career more seriously. He hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee with only his guitar and $2.50 to his name.
Memphis was a place that supported a competitive music community, especially for blacks. When King arrived in Memphis he stayed with his cousin, Bukka White, who was a renowned rural blues performer. King began learning from White as soon as possible and honed his blues guitar skills. A year after he arrived in Memphis, King performed on Sonny Boy Williamson's radio program. The performance led to steady jobs throughout the next year at places like the Sixteenth Avenue Grill.
He also landed a regular spot on the WDIA radio station. The show was called 'King's Spot' and drew quite a crowd. As the show's popularity continued to grow, so did its length. 'King's Spot' was renamed the 'Sepia Swing Club' and given a longer running time. King decided he needed a radio name, so he started calling himself Beale Street Blues Boy which became Blues Boy King, and finally B.B. King.
King composed new songs throughout his radio career and he had soon produced a number one hit, 'Three O'clock Blues', in 1951. By 1952 another R&B single hit number one on the charts. 'You Don't Know Me' was followed by hits like 'Please Love Me' and 'You Upset Me Baby' which both found their way to number two on the R&B charts. He began touring nationally, performing about 275 concerts a year. King found his passion on the stage.
He went from playing the 'chitlin circuit' comprised of small town cafes, tiny theatres, and country dance halls to playing in high class jazz clubs, symphony halls, college campuses, and other prestigious venues across the country. He eventually took his act overseas and brought blues to the masses of Europe.
King's guitar style has become very identifiable over the years. He learned from listening to guitarists like Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker as well as artists like Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. King's unique style, heard in songs like 'Payin' the Cost to Be the Boss' and 'Why I Sing the Blues', comes from blending the genres of blues, jazz, swing, and even pop into a sound that still rings true to his country blues roots. He took the work of his mentors to new levels and began inspiring other artists. King's signature string bends and left hand vibrato have been integrated into the schooling of every great guitarist. His influences are clearly seen in the work of guitarists like Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Jeff Beck. Though he has been in the business for six decades, King still plucks out the hits he became known for on national tours to sold-out venues across the country.
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