B. B. King’s name is synonymous with the blues. At the age of eighty-four in 2009, the blues patriarch follows a rigorous schedule of performances throughout the United States and overseas that would exhaust a much younger artist. King’s performances and recordings have defined the blues for more than six decades as he has reached out to members of each new generation with music they understand and embrace.
As an artist, B. B. King defies definition. Born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta near the towns of Itta Bena and Indianola, he was influenced by gospel singers in the black church, as well as by blues artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson. In 1946 King hitched a ride to Memphis, where he lived with his cousin Bukka White, a noted blues artist. In Memphis he launched his career as the “Pepti-kon Boy,” advertising Pep-ti-kon health tonic on radio station wdIa. King also performed with Bobby Bland, Johnny Ace, and Earl Forest in a group called the Beale Streeters. King adopted the nickname the Beale Street Blues Boy, which he shortened to Blues Boy, and then to B. B.
In 1950 King’s “Three O’Clock Blues” topped the rhythm-and-blues charts for four months and launched his career as a professional musician. He organized his own band and went on the road, barely two years after he made his last cotton crop in the Delta. Thus began a career that has continued uninterrupted to the present and underscores the power of his line, “Nightlife is a good life, the only life I know.”
For twenty years, King played over three hundred one-night stands a year in black-owned clubs on the “Chitlin Circuit.” He also played weeklong engagements each year in large, urban black theaters such as the Howard in Washington, the Regal in Chicago, and the Apollo in New York.