Riley B. King, better known as B. B. King, is unquestionably the most influential bluesmen of the 20th century. Born on a plantation near Indianola, Mississippi, he moved to Memphis in the late 1940s where he gained local fame as a singer, guitarist, and host of a weekly blues show on WDIA, the first major radio station to go to an all black format in 1948. His 1951 R& B hit “Three O’Clock in the Morning” launched a recording and touring career that would eventually make him the world’s most renowned blues singer.
King’s guitar style, based around eloquent single-string runs, is a refinement of techniques pioneered by legendary blues guitarists Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, and T-bone Walker. King’s guitar solos were backed by smooth, riffing horns and a pulsing rhythm section that combined to define a style know as “jump blues” in the 1950s. His early vocals were in the vein of classic blues shouters, but as he matured his voice took on a distinctive gospel feel, characterized by a soulful, pleading delivery complete with falsetto swoops, shouts, and extended melismas (stretching a single syllable over several pitches).
In the late 1960s, following appearances at the Newport Folk Festival and Bill Graham’s legendary rock palace the Filmore West, King extended his popularity among younger white audiences. Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and the Rolling Stones were among the many rock stars who idolized King’s music and who recognized his contributions to the development of rock and roll. In the new millennium King’s sophisticated blues sound continues to move black and white audiences, and his Time Square blues club (opened in 2000) remains a center of blues activity in New York City.