Tuneage Tutelage - Deta Blues Series - B.B. King

Sparks Of Insanity By Vinny "Bond" Marini Friday, May 02, 2008

THE COUCH NOTE: Yesterday afternoon, we added an ABC News Report to our post below. It has some interesting information and even speaks about one of the 'characters' we discussed.


Itta Bina, MS…September 16, 1925, the place is a small sharecropper’s shack, the home of Nora Ella and Albert King. On this day they welcome a baby boy into the world and name him Riley, after the only known living relative of his father, his long lost brother. The last time Albert had heard about his brother was when he was 7-years old and Riley was in a Texas prison.

When young Riley was 4-years old, his mother Nora left he and his father for another man and moved to the hills east of the Delta, sending young Riley to live with his grandmother in nearby Kilmicheal, MS.

Riley’s father Albert did not interfere and lost touch with his ex-wife and son for many years. Riley moved between his grandmother and his mother and her two subsequent husbands. As both the women in his life were very religious, Riley attended church each Sunday at the Holiness Church in Kilmicheal. This is where his love of music began to develop. The preacher, a man named Archie Fair became the first of many influences on the music in Riley’s life. The young Riley had a dominant singing style in the choir.

He also became fascinated by the guitar, which preacher Fair used to lead the congregation in song. He learned his first three chords from Preacher Fair and took a liking to the instrument.

When he was 9-years old, his mother, Nora, passed away and he stayed with his grandmother. When his father Albert heard of Nora’s passing he reached out to young Riley and invited him to come live in Lexington, MS with him, his new wife and family.

Because of his schooling and the gospel singing group Riley had just formed with his cousin Birkett Davis and friend Walter Doris, Jr, he decided to stay with his grandmother in Kilmicheal.

When Riley’s grandmother died in 1940, he continued to live in his grandmother’s cabin and farmed one acre of land to raise a cotton crop. He barely made enough money to live, so in the fall of 1940 Riley packed up and moved to Lexington to live with his father.

For two years Riley stayed in Lexington, but yearned to go back to Kilmicheal. As a 16-year old, he moved back to attend the Elkhorn School and rejoined the gospel group. A white family, cash tenants for Edwayne Henderson, took Riley in to live with them and he worked the land to pay for his keep. Flake Cartledge and his family were kind to young Riley and Flake even lent Riley the $2.50 needed to buy his first guitar.

In 1943 Riley and his cousin Birkett jumped in a borrowed car and moved to Indianola, MS to form a new singing group and to find better work.

Johnson Barrett, an Indianola planter hired Riley to work his land. Riley worked as a sharecropper and learned to drive a tractor. This skilled position earned him $1.00 a day. At night he and Birkett practiced with the new group they formed. “The Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers” comprised a five man chorus including Birkett and Riley and was led by John Matthews. The group performed mainly at churches and also performed live on broadcasts aired on WGRM radio.

At the same time, Riley played the blues on the Indianola street corners on Saturday nights. Riley’s cousin Bukka White was a working musician in Memphis, TN and when he visited family in Kilmicheal he would fascinate the young Riley.

Riley used the money he earned during the day on the plantation to travel to nearby towns to play in the juke joints and he soon learned he could double or triple his money this way. This additional money and the exposure he got to other Delta bluesmen moved his musical expression away from the gospel and squarely into the blues.

In 1944, Riley had to register for the military draft. Johnson Barrett was not happy about possibly losing a skilled tractor driver and, on Riley’s behalf, petitioned the local draft board for a deferment for Riley. He also told Riley that by getting married it would help get the deferment. On November 11, 1944 Riley B. King married Martha Denton and a short time later received his deferment.

Having the possibility of military service disappear, Riley tried to convince the St. John’s Gospel Singers to move from Indianola to search for fame and fortune. He soon realized that if he was to continue his musical journey it would be alone. Then one night when returning the tractor, the machine did not shut down properly and the exhaust stack broke off. Not wanting to face an angry Johnson Barrett, Riley headed out of town with his guitar and $2.50 in search of his cousin Bukka in Memphis.

The summer of 1946 saw Riley searching for his cousin up and down Beale Street. When he finally found him a few days later, Bukka took in his cousin. Over the next 10-months, Riley was a student under his cousin, learning the blues. Riley never played in public, but did benefit from impromptu jam sessions with other Memphis bluesmen. Bukka tutored his young cousin in everything from how to hold the guitar to the phrasing of the lyric to being durable, a trait that seems to have given Riley his durability to this day.

At the end of the 10-months, Riley decided he was not making any headway in his career and moved back to Indianola ad his wife Martha. They both worked to raise crops on the Barrett plantation and by the end of the season in 1948, had earned enough money to pay off their debts. At this point, Riley decided to try his luck in Memphis once again and headed back north.

When he arrived, he looked up Aleck “Rice” Miller, who most knew as Sonny Boy Williamson, who had a radio show on KWEM. Riley convinced Williamson to allow him to play on the radio show and when he did, the radio station was flooded with calls. Williamson had overbooked himself and sent Riley to take one of his gigs at Miss Annie’s Salon in West Memphis.

Miss Annie told Riley if he wanted to continue the gig in her saloon, he would have to promote it on the radio. On June 7, 1947 WDIA had gone on the air and by 1948 it was one of the first black owned and staffed radio stations in the country. Riley asked one of the DJ’s at the station if he could help him make a record. Bert Ferguson, one of the two owners of the station, had a better idea. WDIA had a new sponsor, a health tonic called Pepticon. This was a rival product to Hadacol, which Williamson promoted on his radio show.

Ferguson told Riley he could have a 10-minute show to play his guitar as long as he promoted the product. Riley wrote a jingle for Pepticon which went “Pepticon,Pepticon, sure is good – You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood”.

Riley became known as “Pepticon Boy” and the show became very popular. Riley was promoted to a DJ and given a real shift, entitled the “Sepia Swing Club”. He played recordings by black artists, played his guitar and even sang requests by the listeners.

The station management told him he needed a catchy name and he began as “Beale Street Blues Boy”. It was then changed to “Blues Boy King” and finally Riley B. King became known as B.B. King.

B.B.’s first recording came in 1949 for Bullet Records. Later that year he signed a contract with Modern records.

Though B.B. was not a national success, locally he was a huge hit playing Roadhouses and juke joints as the main attraction. Wanting his fame to spread, B.B. hired Robert Henry, a local record shop, amusement park and restaurant owner as his manager.

Just after Christmas in 1951 “Three O’Clock Blues” hit Billboards R&B charts. This hit allowed Robert Henry to get B.B. a recording deal with Universal Artists in NYC. The record label immediately booked B.B. at the three major black theaters in the country; the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., the Royal Theater in Baltimore and the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY.

This new success led to a strain on his marriage and while on tour, B.B. received word that Martha had left Memphis and filed for divorce. Crushed by the news, B.B. allowed the hurt to be transformed into music and the resulting “Woke Up This Morning” became his second big hit.

B.B. toured throughout 1952, making stops back in Memphis, where he would do his radio show on WDIA. He also reconsidered his management and in 1953 he broke his contract with Robert Henry and signed with Maurice Merritt at the same time hiring a Houston based booking agent named Don Robey.

In 1955 a friend, Cato Walker, bought a used bus from Greyhound for $5,000.00. He spent another $3,000.00 fixing up the bus which was christened “Big Red” At the time B.B. was traveling with 18 people, 13 in the band and 5 roadies.

In 1958, outside of Dallas, TX as Big Red crossed a bridge a car tried to pass. At that moment an oil truck entered the bridge from the other side. The car came so close to the bus, that driver Millard Lee had to swerve to avoid hitting it. The bus hit the bridge embankment and caromed into the oil truck causing the truck to burst into flames. No one on the bus was injured, but one of the truck drivers died in the fiery cab and the other near the river as he tried to jump in the water to dose the flames that had engulfed him.

B.B. was not on the bus that day, and was thankful no one in his party was hurt. Unfortunately the Friday before the insurance on the bus had been dropped. B.B. had planned on renewing the policy on Monday and had taken the chance to operate the bus over the weekend. His liability was settled at $100,000.00 and it took him years to pay it off.

B.B. bought a new bus from Skyliner for $427,000 and named it “Titan” which became the bands transportation for the next 7-years.

In 1958, with a successful career, B.B. married his second wife, Sue Hall. She was the daughter of the manager of Club Ebony in Indianola and was 15-years B.B.’s junior.

She traveled with B.B. for the first 6-months and then they bought a house in LA and she began making it a home for when B.B. came off the road. The marriage lasted until 1966 when the tension of a constantly touring husband got to be too much for Sue.

Again, this sad time became music for B.B. and became one of his biggest hits, “The Thrill Is Gone”.

In the early 60’s in the hope of breaking out of the small “black artist” bucket and trying to become more mainstream, B.B. signed with ABC Records. Unfortunately, ABC did not understand his music and how to promote it. Prior to 1968, B.B. had made only two appearances in front of predominantly white audiences and both were total disasters.

He was still making great music though including “Sweet Sixteen”.

The race barriers began coming down around 1965. The big catylst was the Newport Folk Festival where both Sun House and Mississippi John Hurt performed. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and their interracial lineup also helped to bring down the barriers. It did not hurt when reporters would ask Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield where they learned to play guitar and they replied “By copying B.B.’s licks” When they were met with blank stares and asked “B.B. who?” they would reply “The real monster, B.B. King”.

The word of this man named B.B. and the popularity of “The Thrill Is Gone” caused a total change from the chitlin circuit to gigs in jazz clubs and rock palaces, such as the Fillmore East and West. Then B.B. began playing colleges and even dining rooms of luxury resort hotels. People began to know the name B.B. more and more. In 1969 B.B. performed on “The Tonight Show”, as a result of Flip Wilson sitting in as host for vacationing Johnny Carson. The same year, he opened 18 American concerts for The Rolling Stones. Then the ultimate…1971…”The Ed Sullivan Show”.

In 1973, B.B. was master of ceremonies at a concert at Philharmonic Hall in NYC. The show that evening featured “Big Mama” Thornton, Arthur “Big Daddy” Crudup and Muddy Waters to name a few.

During the 80’s, 90’s and up until today, B.B. has recorded less and less. His touring, however, has never slowed down. B.B. King travels the world over, performing between 200 and 300 times a year.

It is B.B.’s love of music and the desire of today’s rock musicians to play with this legend that allows the fame of B.B. King to continue.

A whole new generation was introduced to B.B. in 1988 when he joined U2 in Memphis at the original Sun Records Studio to record “When Love Comes To Town”.

In 1998, B.B. appeared in “The Blues brothers – 2000” playing the leader of the Louisiana Gator Boys which also included Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Koko Taylor and Bo Diddley.

In 2000, he recorded the fantastic album “Riding With The King” with Eric Clapton.

In 2003, King joined Phish on stage in NJ for a three song set and a 30-minute jam in front of their fans…

In June 2006, groundbreaking was held for the B.B. King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, MS. The scheduled opening is this September.

Over his 52 years B.B. has given over 15,000 performances. He is a licensed pilot, loves to gamble, is a vegetarian and does not drink. He has also lived with Type II Diabetes for over 20 years. His favorite singer? Frank Sinatra. B.B. explains in his autobiography that he is an avowed “Sinatra nut” and credits Frank with helping black performers make it in a white world, getting B.B. dates at Las Vegas hotels in the 60’s.

How did his guitar become known as Lucille? In the 50’s B.B. was playing a juke joint and a fight broke out between two men. A fire ensued and after B.B. had left the club, he realized he had left his guitar inside and bolted back into the flaming building to retrieve it. The fight was over a woman named Lucille and it is said she might have even started the fire to end the fight. Or that she was knocked into a gas heater starting the inferno. B.B. named his guitar Lucille as a reminder to never ever run back into a burning building again!

There are now five B.B. King Restaurant & Blues Clubs around the country. The original at the head of Beale Street here in Memphis opened in 1991, another at Universal CityWalk in LA, opened in 1994. The third was opened in 2000 in Times Square in NY and the last two opened at the Foxwoods Casino in CT in 2006.

The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame inducted him in 1984.

The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame opened their doors to B.B. in 1987.

He received the NARAS Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1987.

He has honorary doctorates from Tougaloo (MS) College in 1973, Yale University in 1977, Berklee School of Music in 1982, Rhodes College of Memphis in 1990, Mississippi Valley State University in 2002 and Brown University in 2007.

The University of Mississippi awarded him the National Award of Distinction in 1992.

In 1990 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

In 1995 he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors.

2004 he received a Ph.D from the University of Mississippi.

In 2006, President Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He has won 18 Grammy Awards, nine of them for Best Traditional Blues Album.

B.B. King…Now and Forever, he is and will be, the King Of The Blues…

As we promised, we are also presenting a 9:30 video history of B.B. King...Hope you enjoy it...

Some more music from B.B. to keep you company this weekend...I am off to the Beale Street Music Festival with my darlin' Nancy...Will give you the lowdown (and if I can get a camera in - some pictures) on Monday.

U2 with B.B. King
"When Love Comes To Town"
Rattle & Hum
1988 - Island Records

The 12th song on U2's 1988 album, Rattle and Hum. It was released as the album's third single in 1989. It was recorded at the original Sun Studios in Memphis. It reached #6 in the UK singles chart and #2 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.

B.B. King
"The Thrill Is Gone"
Completely Well
1969 - ABC Records

Written by Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins in 1951. The song was first recorded by Hawkins and became a minor hit for the musician. King recorded his version of the song in June 1969 for his album Completely Well, released the same year. The song's polished production and use of strings marked a departure from both the original song and King's previous material.

Released in December, the song became the biggest hit of King's career (#3 R&B / #15 Pop) and his signature song.

B. B. King's recording earned him a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 1998. King's version of the song was also placed at number 183 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest songs ever.

B.B. King
1968 - MCA Records

Lucille is named for his famous succession of Gibson guitars,
currently the Signature ES-355. This song is one of my favorites with
B.B. ripping on some great guitar while he tells us the story of his gal Lucille...

Have a fantastic weekend ...

25 Of Your Sparks

  1. katherine. Says:
  2. my tired eyes can't do this now...but I love BB King! I'll be back.

    Hope you all have a really great weekend!

  3. Kb Says:
  4. Wow, the educational value of your blog is amazing! Seriously, you aught to think about making these into a collection for middle school and high school band kids.

    Have a fabulous time this weekend!

  5. KATHERINE: We'll be appearing here all weekend! =]

    KB: TY for the kind words...hope you enjoyed it all

  6. RW Says:
  7. Vin I will be back to digest this all.

    Have a good weekend!!

  8. ROGER: Three shows a day...come back when you can =]

  9. DrillerAA Says:
  10. Thank you for the background on the King of the Blues. The music continues to be marvelous and the history makes the music better.
    Have a great week-end.

  11. Maggie Moo Says:
  12. Have a great weekend Bond!

  13. Julie Says:
  14. Methinks you're blowing everybody's socks off!

    ....in a good way!


  15. That was frickin awesome Bond! Ya know I love BB. Get this...I have actually seen BB in concert. In Arizona. I was 2 :P

  16. Fred Says:
  17. Someone did a little research...well done. Great music.

  18. DRILLERAA: Thanks so much Sir...glad you enjoyed it

    MAGS: You also

    JULIE: Ah shucks... ya mean it?

    STARRLIGHT: Coming from you, I know I done good...hope you liked both the written and the video
    2! What was I that year 30??? LOL

  19. FRED: These are labors of love ...Glad you enjoyed

  20. leelee Says:
  21. I look forward to spending some time with this post over the weekend. Have a great time at the festival this weekend..


  22. Liz Hill Says:
  23. I'll be enjoying this over the weekend. Thanks sugar.

  24. LEELEE: Hope you come back and tell me how I did...

    TURNBABY: I KNOW you will comment once you have revisited...

  25. If anyone can appreciate the amount of work it takes to this feature, I can. A+

    You always teach me something. well down, my friend!

  26. BUD: Thanks Sir. If I teach you something I did dig deep enough!

  27. Unknown Says:
  28. Fascinating...I used to have "Riding with the King" (you know, since I'm a big Clapton fan), and must have worn it out because I can't find it anymore.

  29. Lu' Says:
  30. Saw BB perform. Love BB. Love the Blues. Love BB. I know I said that but it does merrit repeating doesn't it. How can that music not make you dig deep, see what's there and just get to know it. *peck on the cheek* Thanks Bond. Hail the King. Ooh I got shivers.

  31. DANA: Well, we might be able to rectify that...

    LU': Have seen him once in a smallish club on LI yearrrrsssss ago....Shivers is a good thing!

  32. Travis Cody Says:
  33. I wanted to savor this because I love BB. I was not disappointed. I learned a lot of stuff I didn't know.

    And the music was fantastic as always.

    But dangit! The video was no longer available for me to watch. Rats!

    Great job as always.

  34. leelee Says:
  35. well done Vinny...thank you for sharing these "lessons" with us. I love BB. He played here in Ft Lauderdale last night, but after Bruce on Friday I just couldn't go.

    "The Thrill is gone" is one of my all time favs..thank you.

    Hope you had a great time at the BSF. I was thinking of you guys and hoping the wicked weather wasn't a factor.


  36. TRAVIS: lad you enjoyed it Travis. Video is working again.
    THANKS =]

    LEELEE: Hope your Bruce concert was great. It was pretty hairy Friday evening...but I was in the tent all night.

  37. Jeff B Says:
  38. Mr Bond, that was incredible!

    I read the entire post and loved every bit of it. I've heard to truly sing the blues you must first live it. BB King certainly has lived his share of hard times.

    Thanks again for the great information and fine tunage.

  39. Anonymous Says:
  40. Absolutely amazing on BB. I have seen him and plan to attend the museum opening in Sept in Indianola. You did good!!!! Always enjoy reading and listening.


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