He was born Riley B. King. But you probably know the “Blues Boy,” by his nickname—B.B. The King of the Blues. One of the most influential guitarists of all time, and certainly one of the most dedicated.
He once ran into a burning building to save his beloved guitar. And when he found out the fire that nearly killed him was caused by a fight between two men over a woman named Lucille, he swore he’d never do anything so crazy again. To remind himself, he named his guitar after that woman. Lucille. The last girl he’d ever fight over—or run through flames for.
As the years push on, his dedication hasn’t flagged a bit. B.B.’s one of the most tireless performers out there. Since the 1950s he’s averaged 300 shows a year, and he’s still going. So how does he do it? How’s he play the same song thousands and thousands of times without letting it go stale?
You’re going to make me give up my secrets now, but I’ll gladly do it for you. One of the things I do which may not be proper for some, but I play each night like I feel that night. In other words, for example, the “Thrill is Gone,” I don’t try to play the Thrill is Gone like I did in 1969 or 1970, when I first made it, I play it tonight like I feel it tonight, because I don’t know how I felt then, but I know how I feel tonight, so I’m going to play it the best I can play tonight and forget about last night or tomorrow. Tomorrow hasn’t gotten here yet. So I think what I’m trying to say, and some would probably be down on me for it, because they say, well, you don’t play every note like you did then. No, I know, and don’t intend to, unless I feel it. If I feel it tonight, I play it tonight, and that’s what keeps it fresh. Whatever song I play, I’m playing it tonight like it’s the first time. I’m playing it like I’ve never heard it before, but feel like I want to play it tonight.
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.
Check out these three different versions of “The Thrill Is Gone”!