The backlash to the blues rock sound of the ‘60s was the highly produced pop sound of rock in the ‘70s. But the wave of respectability had already arrived. The blues were now considered a part of mainstream America. In 1969, the year of rock’s Woodstock and Altamont, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was established outside Detroit. Within the next few years, annual blues festivals in San Francisco, Memphis, New Orleans, Kansas City and St. Louis were also established. The Chicago Blues Festival, established in the early ‘70s, had over 700,000 in attendance in 1990. Annual blues festivals were also established in France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Norway and Canada.
In the past 30 years, blues books, magazines, and radio stations have been established to promote the works of past and present artists. Living legends like John Lee Hooker were joined by a newer breed of artists. Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy and The Fabulous Thunderbirds were some of the artists presented a version of urban blues in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
But perhaps no single artist linked the delta juke joints with VH1 like B.B. King. He performed before more live audiences and recorded more sessions than any other blues artist in history. The impact of his unique style of guitar playing extends beyond blues into jazz, rock and even country music. He played for kings, queens and presidents. He was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, appeared in television sitcoms and commercials, and for nearly fifty years, he was the face that most of America identified with the style of music known as the blues.
He was born Riley B. King in (where else) rural Mississippi and first learned to sing and play guitar in church. In his teen years he listened to jazz guitarists Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian and blues guitarists Elmore James and T-Bone Walker. Robert Lockwood, stepson of Robert Johnson, taught him early in his career, but a move to Memphis was the first big step in his legendary career.
During the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, King had a job as combination dj and guitar-player on the first black-owned radio station in the South, WDIA. Billing himself on the air as the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” he shortened it to “Blues Boy” and finally, just B.B. King. His rich, gospel blues voice, separated by solo licks on Lucille, his guitar were his trademark sound since the late fifties.
Up until 1966 King was satisfied to make a career traveling by bus from one-night stand to one-night stand. It was certainly better than being a sharecropper in Mississippi, and he had steady work, something that eluded many of the blues artists from the south.
But at the age of 45, B.B. King was hailed by then 25 year old rock guitarist Eric Clapton as “the master” of blues guitar. Immediately King was in demand at first class venues such as Fillmore West in San Francisco and the Monterey Jazz Festival. He was booked on first class tours of Europe and given exposure on American television. By the end of the sixties, B.B. King had 27 blues recordings at various times on the Billboard charts and his signature song, “The Thrill is Gone” was on the pop charts in America.
The ‘70s were a decade in which the blues became mainstreamed in America, and by the ‘80s B.B. King was established as a formidable artist. By this time, his image, voice and unique sound had ushered in an elevated respectability for the blues among both white and black audiences in America. Rather than being embarrassed by the blues, as the middle class African-Americans in the ‘50s had been, middle class African-Americans in the ‘70s embraced the blues as part of their cultural roots in America. Perhaps the elevated awareness brought by films and television mini-series like “Roots” by Alex Haley had made the celebration of heritage in the black community possible.
Traveling with a twelve piece band, King continued to craft a blues sound that was a seamless weaving of voice and guitar backed by brass, drums, electric bass and rhythm guitar, synthesizer and organ.
Similar to Louis Armstrong in jazz, B.B. King became more than just a legend in his field; he became an American ambassador of music and a humanitarian. His generosity in giving scholarships and encouragement to aspiring young musicians has been well noted.
Until his passing in 2016, B. B. King remained one of the most influential living musicians in America. Amazingly, he was able to fuse the gritty sound of the delta dive with a polished funk blues and made it enjoyable for a 21st century audience. Although his songs fit the typical blues pattern of love and loss, he resisted the urge to build his career on song lyrics filled with sexual double meanings.
In doing so, he remained the image of “personal class without artistic compromise” for the blues.