The Polar Music Prize for 2004 is being awarded to the American composer, singer and performer Riley B King for his significant contributions to the blues. King’s total dedication to his music, a rich recording history and tireless touring lasting more than half a century have made him one of the most prominent figures within the blues. Through his achievements in spreading the blues throughout the world, he has, as a leading proponent of his music, proved of fundamental importance to the development of modern popular music.
King of blues
He is not just an ambassador of the blues, which he dreamed of. B.B. King is universally hailed as the reigning king of the blues and the single most important electric guitarist of the last half century. His style of soloing based on fluid string bending and weeping vibrato – together with his staccato picking style – has influenced virtually every blues and rock guitarist that followed. His gritty and confident voice – capable of wringing every nuance from any lyric – provides a worthy match for his passionate playing. He started performing at home in Mississippi in the early 1940s, made his first recordings in Memphis in the late ‘40s and played 250-300 shows a year until his seventies. Still, at the age of 87, he appears at 100 shows a year.
Riley B. King was born in a small cabin on a cotton plantation outside of Berclair, Mississippi on September 16, 1925, son of Albert King and Nora Ella Farr. When he was four, his father abandoned the family. His mother was too poor to raise her son, so Riley was raised by his maternal grandmother in nearby Kilmichael, Mississippi.
He grew up singing in the gospel choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church, got his first guitar at 12 and dreamed of becoming a gospel singer and maybe a preacher. He also started to listen to the Delta blues musicians.
In 1943, at seventeen, Riley left his grandmother in Kilmichael to live in Indianola, Mississippi, where he worked as a tractor driver and played guitar with the Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers of Inverness. They performed at area churches and on WGRM in Greenwood, Mississippi. Country and gospel music, along with the styles of the blues greats, T-Bone Walker and Lonnie Johnson, were young Riley’s influences.
In 1946, at 20, he went to see his mother’s first cousin in Memphis, a rough-edged country blues guitarist named Bukka White, who took him in for ten months and taught him how to play the blues.
Riley returned to Mississippi for a period of hard plantation work, preparing to go back to the city and become a musician. In 1948 he came to West Memphis, Arkansas. He performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM in West Memphis, where he developed a local audience for his sound. It led to steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill. Then, he got a ten-minute spot on WDIA in Memphis, Tennessee, that recently had switched over to a pioneering all-black format. He was a singer and a DJ. “King’s spot” became popular and was expanded. He became the “Beale Street Blues Boy”, later shortened to “Blues Boy” and then just B.B.
1949 was a breakthrough year. He started recording songs, first for Bullet Records and then for Los Angeles based RPM Records. Many of his early singles were produced by a relative newcomer named Sam Phillips, who later would start Sun Records and Studio. He assembled his own band, The B.B. King Review, and started to make tours across the U.S.A. His first national R&B hit was “3 O’Clock Blues” in 1951. A string of R&B hits followed.
Fifties & Sixties
During the ‘50s, B.B. King was a consistent record seller and concert attraction. 1956 was a record-breaking year with 342 concerts booked. His guitar attack grew more aggressive as the decade progressed. In 1960 his revival of Joe Turner’s “Sweet Sixteen” was a huge success.
In 1962 he switched to ABC-Paramount Records and in 1964 he recorded what is considered one of the definitive blues albums: Live at the Regal at the Regal Theater in Chicago.
The mid ‘60s blues revival introduced B.B. King to white audiences, and by 1966 he was appearing regularly on rock concert circuits and receiving airplay on progressive rock radio.
Crossover stardom arrived for B.B. King in 1970 with a stately, violin-drenched minor-key treatment of Roy Hawkins “The Thrill is Gone”, recorded in 1969. It was a departure from the concise horn-powered backing he had customarily employed, and the song hit both the pop and R&B charts, which was rare during that time for an R&B artist. It earned him his first Grammy – for Best R&B Vocal Performance.
In the ‘70s King recorded albums with longtime friend and onetime chauffeur Bobby Bland. He made concerts in prisons in the U.S, of which some became records and films.
In 1978, King joined forces with jazzy Crusaders to make the smooth and funky album Midnight Believer. He was not afraid to experiment with the idiom. Mostly it turned out successful, B.B. King was one of a few bluesmen to score hits consistently during the 1970s.
Many of B.B. King’s greatest live performances on film are from the ’70s. In 1974 he performed in Kinshasa, Zaire, Africa, in connection with the legendary boxing game between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman.
The Blues hall of fame
B.B. King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. That year he also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He tempered his studio activities somewhat in the ‘80s but was still highly visible. He appeared on numerous television shows and performed almost 300 nights a year through the decade.
He reached a new generation when he collaborated with U2 on their album Rattle and Hum in 1987. In 1993 he returned to form with the duet album Blues Summit featuring friends and guests like John Lee Hooker, Etta James and Fulson. In 2000 he teamed up with guitarist Eric Clapton and recorded Riding with the King, which is his most commercially successful album ever.
"Blues is life"
Before the Polar Music Prize Ceremony in Stockholm in 2004, B.B. King made an interview with Swedish TV presenter Arne Weise. They talked about the award, the blues, B.B. Kings life and career and what motivates him to keep on performing and playing the blues for audiences around the world. We learn that had he followed his mother’s advice 75 years ago, he wouldn’t have become a blues musician…
Stockholm May 2004
The week of the Polar Music Prize in May 2004 started off with a concert two days before the Prize Ceremony – with B.B. King and his band in the same concert hall where they played in 1974. The press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music was a relaxed meeting with lots of laughs and joking. British guitarist Jimmy Page arrived at the Prize Ceremony to read the citation.