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20th Century Genius Award Essay

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A nominee for the 20th Century Genius Award should be Riley B. King. King has had an integral part in the history of the blues style of music since the mid 1950s. The manner in which he plays his guitar, Lucille, and his voice are very distinguishable. His style of instrumentation has carried over to other genres of music as well. He is hail as the reigning king of the blues. Most blues guitar solos will have some of the recognizable King inspired bent notes.

Riley B. King, better known as B. B. King, was born September 16, 1925 to a family of poor sharecroppers in Mississippi. King’s artistic contribution to the 20th century is music, most notably the Blues. In the blues arena, he is probably one of the greatest and most respected guitarists in the history of the genre. When one hears the name B. B. King, the music of the blues immediately comes to mind. His musical motivation came from the music in his church. At first, Riley wanted to become a gospel singer. The pastor in his church taught him the basics of guitar.

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He then became a self taught guitarist by using instruction books he ordered through the mail. Since his arrival on the scene in the mid 1940s, King has been the definition of blues for the world wide audience. In his youth, he would play his guitar on street corners for dimes. There were nights when he would play in four towns. Riley also performed with small gospel groups. At the age of 21 hitchhiked from his home in Mississippi to Memphis to pursue his dreams in music. In 1948 King’s performance on a radio station in West Memphis launched his career.

This performance turned in to regular performances at a grill in West Memphis called Sixteenth Avenue Grill and to a 10 minute time slot called “King’s Spot” on a radio station in Memphis. King’s 10 minute show was such a hit, the show was lengthened and turned in to a show called “Sepia Swing Club. ” Riley decided he should have a name that was easily remembered for his radio show, so he started out with Beale Street Blues Boy. That named seemed to be too long, so he shortened it to Blues Boy King. When Blues Boy King first performed in New York, he decided to shorten his stage name to B. B. King.

King has named his guitars “Lucille” after he performed at an event in Twist, AR. A couple of men began to brawl over a woman and during the brawl a stove that was fueled by kerosene was knocked over. This set fire to the building and everyone rushed out. When King realized his guitar was still inside, he risked his life to run back inside and retrieve it. After it was all said and done, he found out the two men were fighting over a lady by the name of Lucille. At that time he figured he would give the name “Lucille” to his guitars so he would remember to in no way do a foolish thing like fighting over a woman.

In King’s song, “Three O’clock Blues (1951), the song begins with a four bar guitar introduction, followed by four full choruses of the twelve bar form. The third chorus is an instrumental with the guitar improvising on the harmonic progression. In this song, King sings and then plays guitar lines that serve as a response to his vocal lines. The guitar lines reproduce and expand on the vocal melody to which they answer and often use string bends to reach blue notes. An accompaniment is provided by saxophones playing notes that are long held. The drums are very quite with little or not accenting of the backbeat.

Some urban sophistication in the arrangement is the occasional use of half step slides into some of the main chords of the progression. A great deal of the time, King slides down to the appropriate chord, then turns around and slides up to the tonic chord at the final beat. During his career, King has created one of the most individualistic guitar techniques in the world. He integrated his specific and intricate vocal-like string blends and his left hand vibrato. These types of instrumentation have turn out to be important works of a rock guitarist’s expression.

B. B. King was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He received the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1987 and has received honorary doctorates from several universities. According to Billboard, “B. B. King has 74 entries on the Rhythm and Blues charts and he was one of the few full fledged blues artists to score a major pop hit when “The Thrill Is Gone” crossed over to the mainstream success. ”

King’s lyrical and expressive solo style has made a large impact on several artists in the rock genre such as Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield. B. B. King’s urban blues guitar style includes the playing of lines that are equal in importance to the lines he sings. There is no single recording that can show the brilliantness of B. B. King’s abilities as a guitarist or a singer. His interest in playing melodic lines rather than chordal accompaniments is quite obvious in several of his numbers. King has performed as a featured soloist with jazz bands and groups of all sizes.

He has also performed with large orchestral string sections playing arrangements of blues songs. Considering what B. B. King has done for the art of blues music, the accomplishments he has had during his career, and the influence he has had on the various genres of music, his contributions to the blues music will continue to impact the music industries for years to come. For these reasons, B. B. Kind should be considered for nomination for the 20th Century Genius Award.


(April 03, 2008). B. B. King. Retrieved April 10, 2008, from Academy of Achievement Web site: http://www.achievement.org/

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