The Thrill's Still Here - Riley "B.B." King Receives an NEA National Heritage Fellowship

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Riley "B.B." King performs more than 250 concerts each year. Says King of his trademark dressed-up style for performing, "I like to think that when you go on stage you should never go on stage with the clothes that you wore in the street. If I go and see a concert and see everybody in overalls . . . it is not as exciting to me as to see them looking like they are show people." Photo credit: Michael P. Smith

Although Riley "B.B." King wanted to be a preacher or a gospel singer, he grew up to be a legendary bluesman whose distinctive economical phrasing, precise bent notes, and unique left-hand vibrato have inspired generations of musicians since the middle of the 20th Century. In 1991, the NEA awarded the Mississippi-born guitarist and singer a National Heritage Fellowship -- the nation's highest honor in the traditional and folk arts -- in  recognition of King's more than five decades of performing and recording. 

Born September 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation in northwest Mississippi, King was interested in music at an early age, singing in local churches and learning chords on the guitar as soon as he was able to hold it. His aunt had an old Victrola, and he listened to recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw, and Leadbelly, along with the recordings of his older cousin, Booker "Bukka" White, famous for his bottleneck-style guitar playing in which the neck of a bottle on the guitarist's finger is used as a slide to bend and slur the notes.

In a 2004 interview, King talked about his transformation from a gospel performer to a bluesman. "I'd go to town on Saturday, after I would get through with my tractor, and sit on the street corners with my little guitar. I had a red Stella guitar, and I'd play and I'd sing, starting with gospel all the time. . . [People] would stop and listen to me, because I guess I made enough noise. I had my big hat sitting down there, or a bucket or something for them to put tips in. . . .The people who would ask me to play a blues would always put something in the hat. Now you know why I'm a blues singer, that's how it started."

In the late 1940s, after hitchhiking to Memphis, King appeared on radio as the "Beale Street Blues Boy," later shortening it to "Blues Boy" before settling on B.B. In the early 1950s he began recording, scoring a hit with his cover of Three O'Clock Blues. He continued to have hits on the R&B charts with songs such as Woke UpThis Morning and Sweet Little Angel, recording more than 200 songs between 1950 and 1961. It was during this time that he famously named his guitar Lucille after a woman who caused a brawl in a bar where he was playing.

King has since released more than 50 albums, landing hit singles on the R&B, Pop, and Rock charts. His 1969 recording of The Thrill is Gone was the first to appear on both the R&B and Pop charts, a rarity for the time. In recent years he has collaborated with Eric Clapton, U2, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, and Elton John, among others.

King is no stranger to celebrity admirers: He's met four sitting presidents, one Pope (to whom he gave a guitar), and the Queen of England. King, however, wears his own celebrity lightly. He remembers, "One day I was reading a magazine -- at this time the Beatles was the hottest group I ever heard of and I guess anybody else -- and I read where John Lennon was being interviewed and the interviewer asked him what would he like to do and he said, 'Play guitar like B. B. King.' I almost fell out of my chair reading it."

In addition to the NEA National Heritage Fellowship, King has garnered numerous honors. To name just a few:  induction into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame (1984) and  the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987); the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the U.S. (1990); and the Kennedy Center Honors (1995).

King has received 14 Grammy awards, including six for Best Traditional Blues Album and three for Best Traditional Blues Recording. In 1987, he merited the National Academy of Radio Arts and Sciences Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

The master musician's reputation as a blues legend is not limited to the U.S. In 2004, King received Sweden's Polar Music Prize, an international prize awarded in recognition of exceptional achievements in the creation and advancement of music. The prize citation elucidates King's wide-ranging impact on contemporary music, naming Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, Eric Clapton, Prince, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards as just some of those who have benefited from his musical influence.

The innumerable recordings that capture King's distinctive style will not be his only legacy. The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center is currently under construction in his birthplace of Indianola. The museum will tell King's story, using his example to inspire young artists and musicians and enrich the lives of Delta youth and all those who visit the Museum campus.