The least important historical fact about B.B. King, who died in Las Vegas on Thursday, is the one most people know: that he played the blues on a guitar he’d named Lucille. But that ax and her tone, while melodic and often transcendent, are the least of King’s contributions. In fact, Lucille’s presence has nearly eclipsed her owner’s striking influence on American music.
Unspooling King’s history during his rise in postwar Memphis through his breakout success in the late ‘60s is to illuminate crucial cultural moments: when Southern black sounds migrated from the country to the city, spread across America and over the Atlantic to Britain to help transform popular music.
King not only participated in this disruption. He was connected by birth to the land where blues began — his older cousin was first-generation country blues singer Booker “Bukka” White — and helped refine the music for mass consumption. An early performer on the Southern “Chitlin Circuit” in the 1940s and ‘50s, King shared the stage with musicians who included James Brown, Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and “Big” Joe Turner.
As he did so, King recorded a string of sublime blues, R&B and blues-soul gems including “The Three O’Clock Blues,” “Sweet Little Angel,” “Woke Up This Morning” and his 1969 crossover hit, “The Thrill Is Gone.” Through the decades the musician became the genre’s most visible figure, the so-called King of the Blues. A tireless monarch, King toured hundreds of dates a year.
PHOTOS: B.B. King | Life in pictures
He played the Apollo in New York thousands of times, calling it his second home, and while doing so established himself as the bridge connecting the Rolling Stones to Memphis R&B and the Delta sounds of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House. King’s influence on rock guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix, spread his ideas to new generations. For them and others, King became an obsession.
“That’s what we lived for, basically,” wrote Keith Richards in his autobiography, “Life.” “It was very unlikely that any chick would get in the way, at that point, of getting a chance to hear the new B.B. King or Muddy Waters.”
Equally important: King, who’d go on to win 15 Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award, was present at a historic juncture. In 1948, a white-owned Memphis radio station, WDIA, made history when it introduced the country’s first all-black format, hiring black DJs, including King, to play popular blues, rhythm & blues and proto-rock ‘n’ roll to an unsegregated listenership.
History turns on this moment. The charismatic King, who’d received his first break on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show, joined a roster of on-air personalities playing the sounds of electrified Memphis and its northern hub, Chicago. King picked cotton in the morning and then hit the station for an afternoon time slot. Then he’d head to Beale Street to absorb the sounds.
In his 1996 autobiography, “Blues All Around Me,” King recalled being awed at first by the scene around Beale, where intermingling sounds of guitar, harmonica, brass, woodwind and string players awakened him. “I stood spellbound. I wasn’t about to play; all I could do was listen and learn,” he wrote. “Before Beale Street, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. After Beale Street, I knew I stunk. The cats could play rings around me. The guitarists seemed to have four hands, and I felt like I had all thumbs.” Within a few years that would change.
The sounds and spirit that King and his WDIA peers broadcast fueled the imaginations of a host of young white artists — Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and others. King met all of them at Sun Studios, where he recorded some of his best early work with Sun’s Sam Phillips behind the boards.
“I was in the very delivery room — Sun Studios — where that baby called rock ‘n’ roll was being born,” recalled King in “Blues All Around Me.”
While the white boys went one direction, blues and R&B were experiencing their own revolution through King and kindred spirits Ike Turner, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who were amplifying and expanding the music.
Waters, Wolf and most of the Chess Records roster played rough, distorted sounds. King’s best early work offered a cosmopolitan style worthy of the name of one of his early labels, Modern Records of Los Angeles. The artist’s first records are some of the most important of the era.
On his first single, “Miss Martha King,” the artist bemoans the actions of his ex-wife, calling her out by name. The song couples rural Mississippi-style guitar lines (courtesy of a young Lucille) with the Beale Street brew he witnessed on first arrival: a swinging romp of saxophone, trombone and thumping bass tones. It failed to chart.
“B.B. Blues” from 1950 opens with a honking sax worthy of a burlesque act before erupting with back-beat rhythm and King’s crisp, single-note melody runs. It, too, didn’t make much of a dent amid hits by Johnny Otis, Ivory Joe Hunter and Ruth Brown.
King’s breakout song, “Three O’Clock Blues,” helped define his style. The lushly recorded lament opens with a tight guitar line; he bends his notes with finesse. The song crawls along like the endless night King describes. It’s a death march, with a backing brass arrangement that colors it in funereal gray. In three verses King moves from sleeplessness and desperation — “I looked all around me, and my baby, she can’t be found” — to suicide. “Tell her, please, please forgive me / Forgive me for my sins.”
If Wolf was a menace singing about killing floors and drinking gasoline, King’s early moans were more comforting, and as he gained fame, he leaned toward a commercial sound that his early peers rejected. As blues historian Charlie Gillett described King’s style in “The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll”: “He presented a much wider range of styles and stressed the potential beauty of the blues, sometimes, but not always, at the expense of emotional intensity.”
By the mid-1960s King had become a crucial blues ambassador, one who helped redirect the music from its raw, rural Mississippi heritage to a pliable, cosmopolitan music accessible to mainstream audiences. As tastes shifted, King’s sound inspired British Invasion bands that cited — and stole from — King’s singular style, even if they couldn’t completely capture his magic.
“The blues are a simple music, and I’m a simple man,” he told the biographer David Ritz, who collaborated on King’s autobiography. “But the blues aren’t a science, and the blues can’t be broken down like mathematics. The blues are a mystery, and mysteries are never as simple as they look.”