20 Facts You Didn't Know About B.B. King

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brandon-and-bbking
Brandon “Taz” Niederauer meeting BB King. Brandon was one of the “Ten Blues Musicians Under 30” in our Magazine, Issue 1, Volume 5!! http://rockn.ro/bluesmag

This is perhaps an appropriate time to look across the vast accomplishments and well-chronicled lifetime of B.B. King… So our ABS staff (especially JD Nash!) compiled a list of interesting ‘hidden gem’ facts about the life and legacy of B.B. King! This will be the last ABS Digital article before our next magazine featuring Cyril Neville and the Blues Festival Awards goes to print! Subscribe now to get your copy… 

1. He couldn’t sing The Blues

As a child, B.B. was forbidden by his mother to sing the blues, which she called the Devil’s music, even though her cousin was renown bluesman, Bukka White. King would eventually take some of his most characteristic styles from White, including his dress and his trademark string bends…

2. He learned to dress for success from his Bluesman mentor

“If you want to be a good blues singer,” Bukka told B.B., “people are going to be down on you, so dress like you’re going to the bank to borrow money.” That’s exactly what the King of the Blues has done for the rest of his life.

He was also deeply influenced by the use of his cousin’s slide guitar technique — using a bottleneck piece of steel, slide up and down on the strings. B.B. discovered he wasn’t very good at the side, but he could bend the strings to make a similar sound, so that’s what he did. Today, his string bends are some of the most famous and instantly identifiable guitar riffs in the world.

3. They reunited on stage in New Orleans

Over 30 years after he crashed at his cousin’s Memphis house to pursue music, the two shared the stage for a rousing setlist at the 1973 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, (Jazzfest). While White’s guitar prowess may have been one of the biggest keys to King’s early success, another crooning individuals vocals are closest to B.B.’s heart…

4. His favorite singer was Ol’ Blue Eyes

Although his original guitar style is influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White and others, B.B. King’s favorite singer is Frank Sinatra. “I’m a Sinatra nut. No one sings a ballad with more tenderness,” wrote BB in his autobiography. I” practically put that In the Wee Small Hours album under my pillow every night when I went to sleep.”

5. He hit it big at the YMCA

B.B.’s career was filled with hits, but his first hit song, a cover of Lowell Fulson’s “Three O’Clock Blues” was recorded in a Memphis YMCA. B.B. eventually had 74 songs on the Billboard R&B charts between 1951 and 1985, but only two went to #1 – “Three O’Clock Blues” and “You Don’t Know Me”.

6. Lucille wasn’t always The Lucille

At this point, most people know about B.B. running into a burning juke joint to save his beloved guitar — and how he named it “Lucille” after a woman who was the object of the fight that lead to the joint burning. It was immortalized in king’s song, “Lucille”.

Well, while the best known Lucille is a Gibson ES-355 guitar, King’s first “Lucille” was a budget model Gibson L-30, a model that was discontinued in 1943. Since then, there have been over 40 Lucilles!

7. B.B.’s first radio appearance was with The Blues Radio Icon

B.B.’s first radio appearance was on the Sonny Boy Williamson show on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1949. Many, many, many bluesmen and area musicians describe Sonny Boy Williamson’s show as being hugely influential to them. In fact, most of the older delta bluesmen like Muddy Waters and James Cotton discussed Williamson’s King Biscuit Time as being hugely influential on their musical development.

Today, the King Biscuit Blues Festival brings thousands of visitors to Helena to experience the blues in a huge, historic festival — across the street from the King Biscuit Time studio, which decades later is still the longest continually-running radio show in the country!

King’s stint on Biscuit actually lead to an influential radio milestone for BB that would set his career in motion… and give him his famous name.

8. He earned his famous “B.B.” from a jingle and a DJ spot

The first radio show BB hosted was on WDIA in Memphis, Tennessee and was called the Sepia Swing Club. It was here he got the name Beale Street Blues Boy, which got shortened to Blues Boy and finally to B.B. after first being billed as “The Pepticon Boy” — a name he earned because he was able to come up with a jingle for Pepticon on-the-spot.

Nearly fifty years later, In 2007’s “B.B. King Live” DVD, he plays at his Memphis Beale Street blues club (just blocks away from the location of his first radio show,) and again sings the jingle that gained him his first opportunities.

9. His two most famous albums were recorded blocks from each other

Funny enough, BB King’s two most popular albums Live at the Regal from 1965, followed by Live in Cook County Jail from 1971, were recorded less than 15 miles from each other in Chicago. Regal, which was recoded at the Regal Theater, was permanently preserved at the Library of Congress. The album, that interestingly contained no BB originals, featured covers from Memphis Slim and John Lee Hooker. Playing live at the jail became something of a tradition for BB…

10. Like friend Johnny Cash, Prisons were good to B.B.

King’s message of universal hope, love, peace and joy has touched all! He’s famously played in several prisons over his career, including in 1992 when he played at a Florida correctional facility where one of his daughters was incarcerated, and his landmark 1971 Live From Cook County Jail, which spent three weeks at the Billboard R&B chart, and was ranked one of Rolling Stone’s most influential albums of all time!

11. He’s spent some time on the screen

While he was known for his music, King is no stranger to the film! His music has been in over 50 movie soundtracks, including Heat, Casino, and Mrs. Doubtfire, among many others. (See the list here)

The King of the Blues has also made a number of appearances as himself on film, including on the Cosby Show, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Married With Children, and Sanford and Son, among many others. He’s been on Jay Leno 6 times! That’s not even counting the commercials…

12. He doesn’t eat meat

Although BB’s music has been used in commercials for Wendy’s and McDonald’s, he has been a vegetarian for years.

13. A draft order and a broken tractor put him on the path to fame

King was drafted in the US Army in 1945, but was discharged after basic training because his skill as a tractor driver made him essential to the war effort as a civilian. Almost exactly one year later, that same tractor driving skill is what would prompt King to leave the farm and pursue music professionally…

14. “The smokestack”

King fled the farm he was working on because as he was putting his boss’ tractor away for the night, it bucked forward and knocked the smokestack off of the tractor. Fearing reprisal, he took off for Memphis that night. In true B.B. King style, he later went back and paid for the smokestack damage.

15. A huge accident kept him on the road for years

In 1958, King’s tour bus was destroyed after colliding with a butane truck in Texas. The company insuring the bus was suspended two days prior, leaving King financially responsible — a million-dollar-plus debt that took him years to years to pay off.

16. Aretha Franklin’s father presided in his wedding

When B.B. married his second wife, Sue Hall in 1958, Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father, presided. Interestingly enough, some of Chess Records’ earliest recordings were of C.L. Franklin preaching.

17. He once worked every day of the year

In 1956, King worked every day of the year, performing 342 one-night stands and three recording sessions. In fact, King has been one of the most relentless touring acts on the road! In a career spanning more than 60 years, King has logged over 15,000 performances.

18. He’s a pilot!

B.B. became a licensed pilot in 1963 and often flew himself to gigs until the age of 70. He stopped flying at the request of his family and close associates after a reportedly dangerously close call.

19. A museum honoring him has a milestone distinction 

The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center opened in his hometown of Indianola, Mississippi in 2008. The museum, somewhat by happenstance, incorporate an old cotton gin that B.B. had worked at as a child! It’s beautiful exhibitions on his life honor King as an internationally renowned and influential musician, celebrates Delta blues music heritage and the local culture, and encourages and inspires young artists and musicians. It’s said to be the only museum of it’s kind honoring a living person! 

20. Unsurprisingly, he’s won a lot of awards (and a few Doctorates)

King has won 15 Grammy awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Grammy Hall of Fame Award (for “The Thrill Is Gone”). He’s been given honorary doctorates from Berklee College of Music, Tougaloo (Mississippi), Brown and Yale Universities, as well as being given the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995 (a distinction now famously shared with Buddy Guy in 2013). He has a recording studio named after him at the Mississippi Valley University in Itta Bena, Mississippi, and the Blues Music Awards’ most prestigious accolade, the Entertainer of the Year, is named for B.B.