Of all the blues giants in the world, there are three Kings. The most famous, B.B. King, looms largest in American legend and is the only one of the three still living. Yet B.B., Albert King, and Freddie King have all impacted current blues musicians such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jeff Beck. All helped transform the blues from an obscure genre to an international phenomenon. And all helped the blues cross over into mainstream white culture, making it popular music where it had once been stigmatized—as B.B. once said, when he started his career, playing the blues was “like being black twice.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the three Kings.
B.B. King was born Riley B. King in 1925 in a farmhouse near Indianola, Mississippi. When he made his way to Memphis to start his career, he became known as the Beale Street Blues Boy and then the Blues Boy King before fans abbreviated his nickname to B.B. His early influences included T Bone Walker, who also served as a model for young Freddie King. B.B. recorded his first hit in 1951 with “Three O’clock Blues,” the first of many favorites including 1955’s “Every Day I Have the Blues” and 1970’s “The Thrill is Gone.” Rising to fame during a time of diversification in American musical tastes, B.B.’s intensive touring schedule and his beloved guitar Lucille helped him achieve an iconic status not seen since the days of jazz great Louis Armstrong.
A fellow blues player born in Indianola just two years before B.B. King, Albert Nelson King claimed he grew up without any musical influences and learned to play the guitar “wrong,” performing left-handed with his guitar flipped upside down. He moved to Osceola, Arkansas in 1931, where he played for a few years with a small-time band, In the Groove Boys. Restless, Albert spent time performing in Indiana and Missouri before landing in Memphis in 1966. It was there that he signed with Stax Records, the label that fostered his success and produced “Born Under a Bad Sign,” his signature song. Albert has recorded the hit with Stevie Ray Vaughan and admirers such as Jimi Hendrix and Cream have covered the tune.
The youngest of the Kings, Freddie, was a native of Texas, born in 1934 as Freddy Christian. He changed his last name to King, ostensibly in admiration of B.B., after moving to Chicago in 1949 where he learned his craft from the examples of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. The “Texas Cannonball” made his first hit recording in 1960 with “Hide Away,” a standard that has garnered many interpretations from fans Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan among many others. Of the Kings, Freddie was perhaps the most successful in his European tours, an opportunity B.B. could not claim until late in his career and a dream Albert never realized. Hits like “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” proved just as popular across the Atlantic as at home, helping the Kings of the blues carry their message to the world.