The Early Years
Born near the tiny settlement of Berclair in 1925, Riley B. King learned soon enough that life in the Mississippi Delta could bring heartache as well as hardship. His parents separated when he was four and his mother died five years later, at which point Riley began living with his grandmother.
After his grandmother died, Riley began living and working on a small farm owned by a friendly white man who taught him about kindness, respect and hard work. Through him, Riley learned to judge people by actions, not skin color.
Coming of Age with the Blues
African-American music was changing as Riley was coming of age in the 1940s. Spirituals were now competing with gospel and the blues.
Headed for Memphis
Seeing that music could be a means to a better life, Riley considered Memphis. His reluctance to move because of a new wife and a steady job faded when he damaged a tractor. Fearing the wrath of his employer, he grabbed his guitar and headed to Memphis. He gained a year’s wisdom from his cousin, blues musician, Bukka White and returned to the farm long enough to work off his debt. He left again to pursue music, this time for good.
B.B. King in Memphis
Riley soon had his own radio show on WDIA, nightclub gigs and recording sessions. In 1951, “Three O’Clock Blues,” entered Billboard charts.
For over 10 years, B.B. and his band toured the Chitlin’ Circuit, a loose network of African-American clubs across the southeastern United States.
From Indianola to Icon
B.B.‘s electrified, big-band style fell out of favor with the general public until the mid 1960s when audiences began to rediscover him, partly due to the influx of British bands. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Eric Clapton’s Cream had grown up admiring and imitating recordings of B.B. and other blues performers.
B.B. King – the Icon
Along the way to becoming an international icon, B.B. had heeded his mother’s advice. He treated the people he encountered with honesty, civility, and compassion. And the work ethic he learned in his youth guided the businesslike management practices he applied to his large traveling entourage.
As you roam through the Museum exhibition and collection, you will see how well these philosophies repaid him, and how much this man from the Delta has contributed to American culture. For millions of fans the world over, B.B. King, a man of character as well as talent, will always rule.
Visit the museum to learn more