A member of blues royalty, the indefatigable "Blues Boy" King has been singing the music of his native Mississippi with unparalleled passion since the 1940s. B.B. King borrowed freely from West Coast jazz and blues to pattern his unique style. Starting in the late 1960s, he broadened his musical horizons and his spectrum of audiences. From the neck of the guitar named Lucille was born a spare and fluid signature sound that inspired generations of bluesmen and rockers, among them Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and U2.
Riley Ben King was born on the Mississippi plantation of Itta Bena on September 16, 1925. After his parents separated, Riley went to live with his grandmother, who brought him to sing in church. After she passed away, young Riley found himself on a farm picking cotton. At 14, however, he was reunited with his father, who took him to Indianola.
King was introduced to the blues after enlisting in the army at the end of the Second World War. On his return to civilian life, he played on street corners or in church, with a gospel quartet.
Going to Memphis
In 1946, the guitarist hitched his way to Memphis in the hope of launching his music career. There, he stayed with a cousin named Bukka White, a renowned bluesman, who taught him some of the tools of the trade.
King first attracted notice on the radio. His performance on the Sonny Boy Williamson Show served to open doors, and soon King was a regular on the radio waves. It was during this period that he adopted the stage name "B.B. King."
B.B. King's first recordings, with Bullet Records, were issued in 1949, and shortly thereafter he signed his first contract with RPM Records. While he still had no permanent home, King remained prolific. And with Three O'Clock Blues, which topped the R&B charts in 1951, he had his first national success.
Appointment with success
During the 1950s, B.B. King set down the signature style that soon spawned a school of imitators. At the helm of an orchestra a dozen musicians strong, King toured all over the U.S.
The bluesman's star continued to rise during the 1960s. King now divided his time between ABS studios-his new label-and touring before ever larger audiences starting in the mid-1960s. Young white audiences were drawn to King, as were musical admirers like Clapton and Johnny Winter.
King's Live At The Regal, a battle cry for the blues recorded in Chicago in 1964, was a among the decade's crowning successes. And with The Thrill Is Gone (1969) King earned a reputation well beyond blues circles.
In the 1970s, B.B. King kept up the pace with a string of accomplished recordings. He never hesitated to return to the blues or to team up with jazz musicians.
In time, it was another generation's turn to celebrate his talent. U2 invited him to lend his voice to the song When Love Comes to Town, from the 1988 album Rattle & Hum. King would go on to tour with the Irish supergroup.
The great B.B. comes to Montréal
While he was accustomed to giving up to 300 concerts a year, B.B. King did not appear at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal until 1989. That year, he stood alongside several star performers on the stage of the old Forum for a concert celebrating the Fest's 10th anniversary.
Six years later, King shared the stage with another blues titan, Buddy Guy. The two musicians engaged in a friendly competition-a kind of world championship of blues guitar. The Montreal Forum was specially converted into a giant cabaret with a central pivoting stage for the occasion.
The "King of the Blues" returned to the Festival 11 years later to mark his 80th birthday. That year, he released his 36th album. Titled 80, it featured a series of duos with an eclectic collection of artists including Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Elton John and... Gloria Estefan.
In 2008, B.B. King launched One Kind Favour, a pure blues recording that included the Blind Lemon Jefferson classic, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.