Riley B. King became the most popular blues artist among African American audiences early in his recording career, in the 1950s; during the late ’60s and ’70s, he widened his appeal to become not only the most recognized bluesman in the whole country, but in the whole world. It was not merely his enormous talent that made him King of the Blues, it was his unending drive for self-improvement, his professional demeanor, and his ability to serve as the worldwide ambassador for the blues. B.B. has taken the blues places it had never been before, and it’s hard to imagine anyone ever filling the gigantic role he has played the blues.

King was born on a plantation in Berclair, Mississippi, near the two towns which both claim him as a native son, Itta Bena and Indianola, on Sept. 16, 1925. He learned to fend for himself early in life when his father left and his mother died, but after winding up at his grandmother’s, he got a taste of blues from her record collection. He began playing spirituals but found that when he performed on the streets of Indianola, passers-by would reward him with thanks for playing religious songs — but with money for playing the blues. He pursued his blues career in Memphis, winning talent shows and earning a spot on WDIA spinning blues records and advertising a tonic called Pep-ti-kon.

King made his first records for the Nashville-based Bullet label but scored his big breakthrough with the 1951 RPM Records release 3 O’Clock Blues, one of four King singles to hit No. 1 on the R&B charts (the others were You Know I Love You,1952; Please Love Me, 1953; and You Upset Me Baby, 1954). King’s records also began to show up on the pop charts in the 1960s and peaked with the crossover hit The Thrill Is Gone in 1970. His performing style, and his guitar playing in particular, influenced just about every bluesman who followed, as well as rock, R&B, and jazz performers.

B.B. King soon became a household name, a guest on talk shows, TV specials, and political events, constantly touring the globe while trying to learn the languages wherever he went, spreading the word about the blues. He enjoyed flying his own plane until doctors recently told him that, now in his 80s, he couldn’t go solo — at which point he announced he would give up piloting since it was no fun if he couldn’t do it by himself.

B.B. never forgot his roots, and began taking time off his regular schedule every June to return to Indianola to play a local festival and give performances in other parts of the state as part of the annual Medgar Evers Homecoming celebration, held in memory of the slain civil rights leader. Indianola’s new B.B. King Museum promises to be a world-class establishment, only befitting of the most world-class of all blues musicians.

— Jim O’Neal