Where would we be without B.B? From his humble beginnings in Indianola, Mississippi, to world tours, 15 Grammys and White House performances. There’s a reason he’s called the ambassador. B.B King brought the blues to the people. Dosen’t matter your country, your language, how you look. Everybody loves B.B.
So how did he get his start? How did the man born a sharecropper become the biggest, most influential, name in blues? Here at the Bluesmobile we were lucky enough to spend a lot of time with BB over the years. And that means you’re lucky enough to hear the story straight from the man who lived it. It all started when a young street musician named Riley B. King moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and tried to get a job at a local black radio station.
I went to the radio station. I can remember that very well. I saw this person in the studio. First he asked me, son, what can I do for you? And I said well, I’d like to make a record and I’d like to go on the radio. So he called the general manager of the station, Mr. Ferguson and told Mr. Ferguson what I had said. And Mr. Ferguson looked at me, very wise man, yeah, come on in. He said we don’t make records but we might be able to use you, come on in.
My first introduction to radio would be advertising Pepticon, which was a new product they were just putting out. And they thought up a name for me that very evening, the boy from Beale Street, the Beale Street Blues Boy. Well, my name is Riley B. King, so it wasn’t hard for me to just put that B and leave the Riley off. So I liked the idea. Anyway, a little bit later they wanted me to write a jingle. Here I am a guy that don’t know anything about writing anything, hardly my name. But I came up with it. “Pepticon sure is good, you can get it anywhere in your neighborhood.” That was the beginning of B.B. King. - B.B. King
(September 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015)
Riley B. King, also known as B.B. King, was born on a plantation outside of Berclair, Mississippi on September 16, 1925. He got his first guitar at age 12—some say he bought it himself, though legend has it that it was given to him by slide-guitar master Bukka White, his mother’s first cousin. In ’46, King followed Bukka White to Memphis. He travelled some after that, ultimately landing in West Memphis, Arkansas where he developed an audience on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show. It was actually in radio that Riley got the name B.B.—his DJ name, which stood for Blues Boy.
He cut his first records in 1949, and before long B.B. was one of the biggest names in R&B, as well as one of the busiest. In 1956, King performed 342 shows.
King won a Grammy in 1970 for his song the Thrill is Gone, which comes in at 183 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all time. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, and the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. His hometown of Indianola, Mississippi boasts an incredible museum dedicated to his life and place in Blues history—the B.B. King Museum. Despite embarking on a farewell tour in 2006, B.B. has toured ever since. Some estimate that he’s delivered over 15,000 performances in his 64 years in the business.
In addition to being possibly the greatest living blues guitarist, B.B. is an entrepreneur with eight nightclubs to his name, a licensed pilot, a spokesman for living with Type II diabetes, and a Frank Sinatra superfan.