He was born Riley B. King in a share cropper’s shack in Itta Bena, Mississippi.
When he was young, his first love (a girl from church named Peaches) burned to death in a car wreck while he was at church.
He wrecked the tractor that was owned by the landowner that he served as a tenant farmer for. Having no funds for the repair and a legitimate fear for his life, he ran away to Memphis TN.
Rufus Thomas gave him a job at WDIA in West Memphis AR. He dubbed him The Beale St. Blues Boy. Later it was shortened to BB, his close friends eventually would simply call him B. He got the job by making up a jingle on the spot for a headache medicine called Pepti-Con and sang that jingle every day on the radio.
One night in Helena, AR, after a fight in a “tonk” led to a lit kerosene barrel being knocked over resulting in a rapidly spreading fire, Mr. King evacuated with the crowd only to frantically run back into the burning building to retrieve his guitar. He almost died. He learned the next day that the fight was over a woman named Lucille so he named his guitar after her to remind himself to “never do anything that stupid again”.
After many years of touring, his bus wrecked while carrying his twenty-nine piece band. He had no insurance and spent the rest of his life battling lawsuits.
He never knew he was a father until he was playing at a women’s prison and an inmate introduced herself as his daughter. Tests proved it to be true. Of all the blues he had, he said that hurt the most…that he wasn’t there for her.
Women were his weakness and in 1996 he dedicated his autobiography (Blues All Around Me) to “all of the children I know I have and the all of the ones I dont”…he was able to list seventeen children.
I got to see Mr. King on several occasions. He rang in the new millennium for me on Beale street. It was like attending the sermon on the mount.
At a little amphitheater in Little Rock, AR in the late 90’s, Mr. King made a lifelong impression on this bluesman. He took the stage to a standing ovation from 18,000 people. He sat in his chair and politely told everyone “If I have to sit down then you all do too”, so we all did what the king commanded. Then he did it…the BB King note…that high one on about fret nineteen, with all the vibrato his fat fingers could conjure. All 18,000 people defiantly leapt to their feet and created a thunder that I know still rolls through the ether. That one moment filled me with the inspiration and the motivation to dedicate my whole self to not only music, but the Blues that he so recklessly created and carefully nurtured into first HIS brand of blues…and then Rock ‘n Roll.
What would music sound like had he not wrecked that tractor, or died in that burning honky tonk? Where would I be? Where would you be?
There is an adage associated with James Brown but also fits Mr. King:
“You may not own any of his records but be assured that every record you own has a piece of him in it..”
I celebrate you Mr. King…. and wherever she is, I hope Lucille, and you, rest easy.
~ Kris “Mudbone Colwell
Kris “The Mudbone” Colwell is an established singer, songwriter, musician and Blues Historian hailing originally from Arkansas and currently resides in Tennessee. He is also the owner of Travelin’ Roots Productions in Nashville, Tennessee. He tours extensively as a songwriter and has a musical production detailing the origin of the Blues in the works. You can follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/KrisColwellMusic.