The King of the Blues

When people think of the blues, one name often comes to mind before all others: B.B. King. He is a living legend, the reigning “King of the Blues.” His style has influenced everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton.

Luckily, Portlanders can catch a glimpse of his highness in action Sunday night when he performs at the Roseland Theater.

Born Riley B. King on Sept. 16, 1925, on a plantation in Itta Bene, Miss., B.B. King started his musical career early. He grew up playing his guitar in street corners for dimes. In his early 20s, he hitchhiked to Memphis, Tenn., to pursue a career in music. There, he studied with cousin Bukka White, one of the the most respected blues performers of the day.

Within a year, Kind had a popular radio spot and a catchy radio name to match. He started out as Beale Street Blues Boy, which was shortened to Blues Boy and finally, to B.B. King. His popularity grew as he performed throughout the 1950s. His first number-one hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” launched him and his band on a national tour. During 1956, they played an amazing 342 engagements.

Over the years, Kind refined his playing style on his trademark guitar, Lucille. Influenced by guitarists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker, he developed his complex, vocal-like string bends and his left-hand vibrato. In 1968 and 1969, King started to reach young, white audiences, playing at the Newport Folk Festival and opening for the Rolling Stones.

To date, just a few of his many accomplishments include being inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He was recently named the winner of the Polar Music Prize for 2004 for his “total dedication to his music, a rich recording history and tireless touring lasting more than half a century.” The Polar Music Prize, presented by The Royal Swedish Academy of Music, is a prestigious international award.

During his career, King has released more than 50 albums. He is a Grammy Award-winner who has had two number-one R&B hits: 1951’s “Three O’Clock Blues” and 1952’s “You Don’t Know Me.” His most recognized song, 1970’s “The Thrill is Gone,” reached number 15 on the pop charts.

King, at the age of 78, still manages an average of 250 tour dates per year.