B.B. King: From Cotton Picker to Grammy Award Winner

Born on a cotton plantation in 1925, you could argue that the start of Riley B. King’s life was far from illustrious.

King’s parents were both sharecroppers, an occupation that was not far removed from the enslaved lives that their parents would have survived.

They were tied to the land that they lived on and constantly indebted to the owner of the land – escaping the system that they were entrenched in was near enough impossible. Before Riley B. King became the legendary B. B. King he worked as a sharecropper too, becoming indebted to a farm owner at the age of 14 and being forced to work long hard hours picking cotton, in addition to attending school.

Left to fend for himself after the death of his Grandmother, he would later be reunited with his estranged Father, but this would not be a relationship that lasted. He married in 1944, whilst still struggling to make ends meet, an accident with a broken tractor sets him back even further and left him working to repay another debt. It’s not until late 1948 that the burgeoning guitar player lands his first professional gig selling an alcoholic health tonic Peptikon.

Regional stardom soon follows as ‘The Peptikon Boy’s‘ popularity begins to snowball. King cuts four tracks for Bullett Records in 1949 and is rechristened as the ‘Blues Boy’, which is soon abbreviated to ‘B. B.’ King. In 1952 he signs with Universal Attractions and proceeds to tour extensively playing to huge crowds, however his audience remains entirely black. Blues music has yet to break into mainstream American culture and despite his success he is still struggling for money.

Tax problems, divorces, bus theft and fires dog B. B. King’s career throughout the 60s, but the national sentiment towards his music is changing as well as the social acceptance of black people in America. In 1968, he is introduced on to the stage of the Filmore Auditorium to the sound of a standing ovation from an audience of predominantly white people – his arrival into the mainstream is quickly followed up by the recording of two seminal albums: Live and Well and Completely Well. The last track on Completely rocketed King to fame: The Thrill Is Gone took B. B. to the Grammy Awards in 1970 and claimed his first of 15 in his long fruitful career.

A man that exemplified and popularised the blues as we know it today, B. B King influenced countless Rock’n’Roll artists that we now know and love.