BB King: From Riley to BB - his early years

BB King performing at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011, a long way from Itta Bena
BB King performing at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011, a long way from Itta Bena (Image credit: Rune Hellestad/Corbis)

This piece was originally published in Guitarist's 2012 BB King special.

Sat backstage at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011, the impression of BB King is of a man with incredible warmth and compassion. He seems truly thankful for all he has been able to see, achieve and enjoy in his career to date, and you're unlikely to detect so much as an ounce of cynicism or negativity in his outlook or demeanour.

Perhaps it's the preserve of an octogenarian to be worldly and wise; perhaps the passing of time grants a person an increasingly sagacious perspective. As the man himself admits, however, what's on the outside is only part of the story.

Riley B King's childhood, upbringing and teenage years brought him more than their fair share of tragedy and uncertainty that, while not twisting him into adulthood bitterness, nevertheless had a profound effect on his life that followed. There are differing accounts of dates and the exact chronology of events, but the story remains.

Bena Born

Riley B King took his first breath on 16 September 1925 near the village of Itta Bena, around 20 miles from Indianola, born to Nora Ella and Albert Lee King (not to be confused with famous bluesman Albert King). His parents separated when he was around four or five years old, so Nora Ella headed back some 50 miles east to the Kilmichael hills to her family with Riley B, taking up work on a hill farm owned by one Flake Cartledge.

While black families were subjected to what would be considered extreme racism today, Cartledge was a fair main by all accounts including King's; a world away from any notion of the slavery endured by the boy's great grandparents. As a six- and seven-year-old, Riley worked the corn and cotton fields, and also milked cows in between the long walks to his school, opposite the Elkhorn Baptist Church.

Unable to resist a small boy's temptations with this fascinating new object, the young Riley would gingerly touch the guitar, just to see how it felt

It was through the church and preaching that he had his first up-close encounter with the instrument that would come to define his life. His uncle William's brother's wife had a brother named Archie Fair; Reverend Fair in fact, who played the guitar. Nearly 80 years later, King remembers the days [see page 82] where Fair and his wife would visit. "Before they would go into the kitchen to eat," he recalls, "he'd lay his guitar upon the bed." Unable to resist a small boy's temptations with this fascinating new object, the young Riley would gingerly touch the guitar, just to see how it felt.

Noticed by the Reverend, Fair didn't scold or beat the boy as he might have expected, instead encouraging him to pick it up - he even helped him through his first few chords. Riley's mind was made up: he'd be a singing preacher, just like the Reverend. You could say he eventually achieved his dream, albeit as a slightly different kind of preacher.

Aside from the blues singing he'd heard coming from the fields as a child (King later opined that they were often songs of specific communication and warning between workers) his other early musical influence was from Aunt Mima's wind-up gramophone player.

It was here he heard the sounds of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson; one the booming blues belter, the other altogether more refined. It's no small coincidence that BB King's own later style would sit squarely between the two, perhaps less in direct sound and technique, more in note choice, song structure and variety. The third piece of that early musical jigsaw was Booker T White - Bukka White - a cousin of his mother's, who greatly impressed Riley with his sharp dress sense and mesmerising slide guitar.

Alone in the woods

Riley soon found himself seeking solace in music for intensely personal reasons. Two tragedies struck within relatively short succession and, while the exact dates aren't certain, it seems he had lost his mother, and then his grandmother, before he'd reached his 10th birthday (some historians say his grandmother died later). Nevertheless, he was basically alone. Riley had experienced death close in the family once already - his younger brother had died aged around two, reportedly by eating glass.

Moving to Aunt Mima's was an option, but in an age long before social services (black families barely had access to basic medical care at this point) this boy instead took himself off and essentially self-subsisted ina cabin in the woods, working and paying his way.

Exactly how long he was living like this is not known, but in that cabin Riley was able to draw back from the world, put his head down and work through his grief. He was not a natural communicator, often stuttering his words and feeling uncomfortable. This suited him, and he's even gone so far as to say that he preferred the company of animals to humans at that point, referring to them as his friends to whom he'd talk and confide in.

Cartledge had advanced BB some money, deducted from his wages on the farm, so he could buy his first guitar, a red Stella acoustic

Mercifully, Cartledge had been good enough to advance him some money, deducted from his wages on the farm, so he could buy his first guitar, a red Stella acoustic. BB later recalled being around 12 years old or thereabouts and overjoyed when he got it, but just when he really didn't need another heartbreak, it was stolen from the cabin the following year.

Meanwhile, in Lexington, around 50 miles away, Albert Lee King had heard that his son was for all intents and purposes living alone. He drove to the farm and brought Riley 'home' to live with his new family. To this day BB King remains outwardly respectful in his memories of his father - a hard-working man of very few words - but he was nevertheless unhappy in that environment.

So, remarkably, one day he simply got on his bicycle and rode back to what he regarded as his true home: firstly Cartledge's farm, then on back to the Delta sometime later. There he settled with an aunt and uncle, and worked picking cotton, baling hay and ploughing fields with a mule.

When he first moved back to the Delta, there was a guitar in his heart, but not in his hands. But the regular farm work enabled Riley to save for another six-string, which he put to use in a group he had joined, The Famous St John Gospel Singers. It's worth noting that, depending on who you talk to, there was considered to be a strict line between gospel and blues music; the former was God's music, reverent and good; something sung in polite company. The latter, however, was the devil's music, sung in the fields, away from wives and grandmothers. BB King's later memories don't make the distinction so heavily - to him it was all music, and it was all good.

Running the tractor

What came next was another big move. Riley had copped a break as a tractor driver working on the farm, which brought him in a much better pay packet. By day he'd work the farm and at the weekends travel to Indianola to see and hear the fabulous music that was being played there. He also did what any aspirant musician would do, and went busking, singing gospel and blues songs and getting a pocket full of change for his trouble.

It's a stark juxtaposition to think that World War II was raging in Europe at this point, and as the USA waded in, Riley B enlisted for service as soon as he was eligible in 1943. He went through the basic training but - though he was ready to serve - key agricultural workers were ordered to stay at home and produce food. By the end of the war in 1945, he'd been married for a couple of years and was feeling the pressures of that, alongsidea welling dissatisfaction with his life as a sharecropper and tractor driver. That tractor, however, would prove to be more significant than he ever thought.

Fearing what would happen next - panicking - Riley B gathered up what he had and ran.

Returning from the field one day, he pulled the tractor up as he'd done countless times before. Switching off the engine, he jumped off and to his horror the tractor leapt backwards as the engine clunked to a stop. The exhaust struck the top of the barn door opening and broke. Fearing what would happen next - panicking - Riley B gathered up what he had and ran.

He ran to Memphis, a city he'd dreamt about, complete with its famous Beale Street. Hooking up with his cousin Bukka White, Riley was able to find work by day and continue his music into the evenings and weekends. It was an eye-opener for sure, but wracked with guilt at his leaving, he soon returned to the farm, approached the owner, Johnson Barrett, apologised for his actions and started work again.

Having already been mesmerised by the electric guitar sound of Charlie Christian, it was about this time that he picked up on Django Reinhardt and T-Bone Walker: together they are three giants of guitar who shaped so much music that was to follow. The burning for six strings simply wouldn't abate, so weighing up his options - and this time with nothing to run away from - Riley said goodbye to Mr Johnson and headed back towards Memphis. There, he would seek out one Sonny Boy Williamson who, as the now 23-year-old knew only too well, had a spot on the radio.

Riley managed to get in front of Sonny Boy and play for him. He was suitably impressed enough to give him a slot, and also recommend him for a regular gig at the 16th Street Grill in West Memphis. The only conditions from the owner were that Riley himself needed to get some radio exposure and mention the Grill when he did. The challenge was big, but the reward bigger - he'd earn $72 per week with one night off, which was a significant step up from the $22.50 he pocketed as a tractor driver. So, how to get on the radio?

Radio Bee Bee

WDIA radio started broadcasting in 1947 from Memphis, owned by John Pepper and Dick Ferguson. In 1948 the station broke new ground in airing the first program targeted at black people, called Tan Town Jubilee. In the world of 1940s America, the inherent racism in the name was the norm, yet there was perhaps some progress in that blacks and whites at least worked together.

In any case, the uptake was significant to the point where WDIA eventually became an all-black station in terms of programming, elevating it to the biggest station in Memphis. 'Bee Bee King', as the name on his amplifier proudly stated, was part of that success.

Following his meeting at the 16th Street Grill, Riley made his way over to WDIA to meet whoever was in charge. As things turned out, he ended up with a 15-minute spot every day including a commercial jingle for Pepticon, a health tonic - so healthy it contained a goodly slug of booze! Still, tonic or not, things were looking up even if Riley still had to pick cotton in the mornings to supplement his income.

It was at this point that Riley B King started to become BB. Each of the radio DJs had nicknames for themselves, and the first of Riley's was Beale St Blues Boy. It ended up being shortened to Blues Boy, then Bee Bee, and finally BB. Promoted to full time DJ it was finally time to say goodbye to the farm work on a regular basis. Now surrounded by music, and fast developing as a guitarist and singer, he was out playing regularly. Then, in 1949, he called a guitar Lucille for the first time - a Gibson L-30 archtop by all accounts. You can read BB recounting that story himself on page 89.

About time too - Three O'Clock

Through his contacts at WDIA, BB King began his recording career in 1950, managing to cut a few sides at the studio. Nothing was particularly successful - a less than auspicious start, you might say - but it was just the beginning and now at least he was fully immersed in music. Sun Studios was in the offing - BB would meet and work with the legendary Sam Phillips, a meeting made possible by perhaps the most influential person in King's career: Jules Bihari of Modern Records in LA, and Meteor in Memphis.

That friendship gave BB King his first recording success, his seventh release. Among a number of cuts was Three O'Clock Blues, a song made popular by Lowell Fulson four years previously. On the accompanying DVD with this magazine, Joe Bihari (Jules' brother) explains how they recorded the song at the Black YMCA in Memphis in 1951 using some portable recording equipment, with blankets at the windows to deaden the noise of the traffic.

Something was in the water that day. The track scored the 26-year-old his first number one hit on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart in February 1952. With that kind of success, he was now in a position to book bigger venues and was soon on the road. In a few short years, a handful of dollars as a sharecropper had turned in to thousands asa performing and recording blues artist. Ten more singles hit the Top 20 of the R&B charts by 1955: now he was motoring, quite literally in a big red bus, all over the country…

At this point we should reflect. If you find yourself on Beale St in Memphis any time soon, take a trip to the third floor of BB King's Blues Club. You'll find a restaurant named after his birthplace, Itta Bena. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, getting something to eat wasn't always easy for young Riley B. It seems fitting that today, BB's place serves all the food you could dream of - fit for the King!

Click here for part two of the BB King story: Boy to King - the big breakthrough


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