The blues aren’t something that comes easily. Certainly, every genre has its challenges, but the blues requires more than the rote memorization of scales and chords. It demands something deeper, something innate – an understanding of the complexity of a single note held, of the heavy depth of a silent pause, of the delicate balance of pleasure and pain. The blues isn’t something that can be taught; it must be earned.
Rough beginnings, then, are almost a prerequisite to the blues, and the master of the genre—born Riley B. King—was no exception to this rule. Born on a plantation in the backwoods outpost of Itta Bena, Mississippi, King spent his formative years picking cotton beneath the pulse of the Southern sun. He learned lessons about life and loss at an early age; his mother died when he was nine, and though his grandmother took him in, she passed away only six years later. He was plagued by a persistent stutter, his first love was crushed in a traffic accident, and he spent long stretches of his childhood fending for himself with no adult guidance whatsoever. As was the case with many masters of the genre, it seems almost inconceivable that King would grow up to do anything but play the blues.
King began his musical career at a young age, acquiring his first guitar by twelve, becoming a regular on the street-corner circuit in his teens, and hitchhiking his way to Memphis, Tennessee, when he turned twenty-two. Memphis in the forties was a hotbed of black music, a pitch-perfect blend of grit and grace that served as both school and sanctuary for anyone searching their soul for the blues. Fortunately for King, Bukka White—cousin, mentor, and well-established name in the city—took him under his wing, and King was soon appearing regularly as a performer in Beale Street bars and as a deejay on Memphis’s black radio station, WDIA, where he earned the name “Blues Boy,” a moniker that would eventually be shortened to the legendary “B.B.”
B.B. King’s sound was unlike any other. He and his guitar—fondly called Lucille—performed the blues with the fluidity of lovers, balancing a musical choreography of peal and moan, of bone-aching staccato and cathartic whine, all punctuated with quivering left-hand vibrato that became the signature of King’s sound. It wasn’t long before B.B. and Lucille found their way into the airwaves beyond Memphis, and the pair began generating hits that swept them out of the Chitlin Circuit and into the big leagues.
Though for some, achieving genre-transcending, international fame may have triggered the well-earned privilege to slow the pace, King’s dedication to performing the blues was, if anything, amplified by his success. For over four decades, B.B. King and his band averaged over 330 shows a year, all the while producing an ever-evolving body of new music. For King, the blues were not the vehicle to success, but the embodiment of it, and he continued to tour well into his eighties, stopping only when he was slowed by the disease that would eventually end his life, diabetes.
With over fifty albums, thirty Grammy nominations, and innumerable honors and awards, B.B. King’s success would be admirable in any field, but the fact that he made such an indelible mark with the blues—a genre that generally runs just below the acclaim of general consciousness—makes his success extraordinary. Though B.B. King’s death marks the end of an era, the passing of the last legend of the Delta Blues, his legacy will live on in the innumerable musicians he has inspired and will continue to inspire, in the peerless body of work that he left behind, and in the style he helped to define. History will always honor the father of the genre, the royalty of the blues, B.B. King.