by Geoffrey Churchman

Anyone exploring blues music and its history will come upon Riley B. King, known as B.B. King, born 16 September 1925, or 17 September NZ time. The B.B. stood for Blues Boy and sometimes Beale is added for Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1991 a BB King Blues Club was established on the street.

B.B. King became one of the most influential electric guitar players of the post-war era whose technique was admired by all who were into blues and blues-rock music. He was born on a cotton plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, and later worked at a cotton gin in Indianola, Mississippi. He was attracted to music and the guitar in church, and began his career in juke joints and local radio. He later lived in Memphis, Tennessee and Chicago, and as his fame grew, toured the world extensively.

Like others he learned his craft by watching other players, and their aim was simple: make the guitar sound as sad and forlorn as the blues they were singing. They didn’t need a lot of notes, fancy techniques or expensive gear to do that. They just needed to play with passion and soul.

His soloing — he did not play chords, he either sang with a rhythm backing or soloed — involved fluid string bending, shimmering vibrato and staccato picking. The guitar he mostly played was a Gibson ES-335 then a deluxe version called the ES-355 which employed a stereo option. He named them all Lucille. The story is that at one show in Twist, Arkansas, a brawl broke out between two men and caused a fire. He evacuated along with the rest of the crowd but went back to retrieve his guitar. He said he later found out that the two men were fighting over a woman named Lucille and so named the guitar Lucille, as a reminder not to fight over women or run into any more burning buildings.

His recording and touring career was long and illustrious; the first album of his I bought, “Indianola Mississippi Seeds” from 1970, was his 18th. His most successful single was his version of “The Thrill is Gone” from 1969 which got to number 15 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

In later years he collaborated with many artists including Irish group U2, Gary Moore, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Koko Taylor and Bo Diddley. I remember seeing him play live at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington, and even though it was all allocated seating, quite a few people couldn’t help after a while getting up to move to the music in the aisles.

He passed away in 2015 and today he is remembered as one of the giants of 20th century blues music.