Take a deep breath. Clear your head. Now, when you feel completely relaxed and free, think of an influential blues guitarist. Got your choice?
There are a lot of names that will undoubtedly come up when asked this question. Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the list is endless. Of course, everyone has varying opinions based on a number of factors as to who the most influential bluesman is. However, one name is sure to be at the top of any list, including on the list of a few of those guys I just mentioned.
That man of course is the illustrious and highly regarded B.B. King. This Saturday on September 16th, we celebrate the birth of a musician who changed the course of the blues forever and whose influence spreads much wider and fuller than we will ever know.
Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925 on a cotton plantation in a small town located in Mississippi. He learned his first few chords from a minister who led church sermons in his hometown. From that moment, King was infatuated with music and the guitar. He, like most musicians of his day, would play small gigs around his hometown and learned from various people along the way.
Although B.B. King was a stellar guitarist even at a young age, his first actual job in the field wasn’t playing his instrument. In the later 1940’s after a few minor stints on radio, he headed for the thriving town of Memphis Tennessee where he gained a spot on WDIA radio. Going by the jockey name of “Blues Boy,” (hence B.B.). King met a lot of talented musicians in the blues scene, including T-Bone Walker.
After the station owner caught a glimpse of King with his guitar, he decided to give King his own show where he talked about and played the blues. The show became so popular that King offered many gigs around the area and as a result began performing and recording in conjunction with his day job.
By 1951, B.B. King became a household blues name with his breakout hit “Three O’ Clock Blues” which is still a major reference for a standard blues tune. Also, it wasn’t until 1970 that he appeared on the Billboard top charts with his world-famous song “The Thrill Is Gone.”
Funny enough, King took inspiration from a man he greatly admired, both personally and musically after he met him at the radio station, T-Bone Walker. T-Bone’s single note playing was so precise and he played with a lot of conviction and feeling. King took this clear and crisp style and combined it with rough bends and vibrato to create his own unique sound. With one note, you know it’s the King. He made leaving space in his solos appealing.
Anyone who plays guitar has at least heard of him, and if you play the blues, you can’t help but pull ideas from him. Everyone from Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, and even Santana have given credit to B.B. King for helping to evolve their playing. Funny thing is, he never considered himself to be a great guitarist. “I’ve seen myself on those lists of the 100 best guitarists, and if they think that I’m that good, thank them. Thank God for them. But I don’t think so.” His humble and giving nature is what him so approachable and a great person to be around.
Another guitarist he had a major hand in molding and shaping was none other than current blues guitar ace Joe Bonamassa. At the age of twelve, Joe was invited to open for B.B. King at one of his shows. He was such a hit that King invited him on an entire summer tour! Without this exposure and supremely kind words of encouragement, we may not have the incredible music from Joe today.
So thank you B.B. King for your beautiful touch on music. Rest in Peace.