B.B. King: Why Google honours him today

Google honours musician with doodle on what would have been his 94th birthday.

B.B. King Performs At Belly Up Tavern
BB King performs onstage at Belly Up Tavern on December 3, 2013 [File: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images]

Described as the “King of Blues”, Riley B King – popular as BB King – would have been 94 on Monday.

In the honour of the iconic American musician, Google is changing its logo in more than 60 countries for an animation of him that includes his thrilling version of The Thrill is Gone.

Below, Al Jazeera takes a look at the story of the guitarist and singer, and his achievements:

Early life

  • King was born on September 16, 1925, on the Berclair cotton plantation near the town of Itta Bena, in Mississippi.

  • He was the son of sharecroppers, Albert and Nora Ella King.

  • At the age of four, his mother decided to leave his father for another man. King was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Elnora Farr, losing contact with his father for a while.

  • During the early part of his childhood, King lived between his mother and grandmother. 

 Three basic chords of guitar 

  • At the age of four, King started singing spiritual songs with his mother, who died five years later.

  • BB King in 1949 in Memphis [File: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images]
    BB King in 1949 in Memphis [File: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images]

    In the church, he met Reverend Archie Fair, who would play a key role in young King’s life. 

  • Fair would use music to bring his congregation together, and under the reverend’s influence, King learned how to play three basic chords of the guitar.

  • “Church was not only a warm spiritual experience,” King was once quoted by the Washington Post. “It was exciting entertainment. It was where I could sit next to a pretty girl and mostly it was where the music got all over my body and made me wanna jump.” 

‘I was ashamed man’ 

  • King soon found exciting music outside the walls of the church, discovering the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson.

  • But at that time, the blues was not approved by many in the religious congregations. 

  • “I was ashamed man,” King told the BBC in 1972. “The people around us was very religious. I always say they were very religious, very hypocritical. Because, if they wasn’t religious, they seemed to act the part.” 

  • However, King continued singing at the church and formed a gospel group called Elkhorn Jubilee Singers, without major success, however. 

  • In 1940, his grandmother Elnora died. Three years later, he found a job as a tractor driver in Indianola, Mississippi, as well as a new singing group.

 A blues singer 

  • The group was called the Famous St John’s Gospel Singers, which achieved some popularity in the black churches across the region.

  • Musically, King pushed the blues into the church, which upset many, while his guitar playing was not always appreciated.

  • King also began performing the blues on Indianola’s streets. He quickly discovered he could earn double the money by playing the blues. 
  • “I’d go to town on Saturday afternoons, sit on the street corner, and I’d sing and play,” King said in an interview in 2008, according to a report by The New York Times.

  • “People that would request a gospel song would always be very polite to me … but they never put anything in the hat.

  • “But people that would ask me to sing a blues song would always tip me … sometimes I’d make $50 or $60 one Saturday afternoon. Now you know why I’m a blues singer,” he added.   

  • In 1944, King married his first wife, Martha Denton, and two years later, he left Indianola. 

 Blues Boy King 

  • King arrived in Tennessee during the summer of 1946, searching for Bukka White, his mother’s first cousin who was also a blues guitarist and singer.  

  • For the next 10 months, King worked closely with his cousin, who helped him in his artistic development.
  • King’s first success came in 1948, during a performance on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show.

  • He became popular in Memphis but realised he needed a catchier name – he first nicknamed himself “Blues Boy” King, which later became BB King, a name that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

  • King went on to christen his guitar “Lucille”. During one of his performances, two men got into a fight and knocked kerosene stove that set the hall on fire. King, like everyone else, escaped, but he ran back to get his guitar, barely making it out alive. He later found out the fight was over a woman named Lucille, so he decided to name his guitar after her.

BB King poses for a portrait with his Gibson electric hollow body guitar nicknamed “Lucille” in the studio with drummer Ringo Starr [File: Getty Images]

Ascendant success 

  • In 1951, one of his first recordings, Three o’clock Blues, reached the top of the rhythm-and-blues chart.
  • A year later, King divorced his wife Martha. One of the reasons was his heavy work schedule – King gave an average of 275 performances a year.

  • After his breakup, he wrote Woke up this Morning, which became a big hit.

  • In 1958, already a major star, King married his second wife, Sue Hall. The couple divorced in 1966.

  • During this time, King’s music influenced famous guitarists, including Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.

‘The real monster’ 

  • Still, King was largely unknown. This changed in 1965 when Elektra Records released singer Paul Butterfield’s first album, which became a success.

  • When Butterfield was asked where did he learn how to play, he answered: “By copying B.B.’s licks.” “B.B. who?” was the follow-up question, to which Bloomfield replied: “The real monster; B.B. King.” King’s popularity then soared. 

  • In his personal life, King remained single from 1966 onwards. Reports have quoted him as saying that he fathered 15 children with 15 women.


  • During his lifetime, King recorded more than 75 records and won 15 Grammy Awards, including its Lifetime Achievement prize in 1987.

  • In 1986, he also earned a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

  • In 2003, the Rolling Stones magazine ranked King Number 3, behind only Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman on the list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

  • King died on May 15, 2015, at the age of 89, after being hospitalised from dehydration related to Type 2 diabetes.

BB King
 BB King performs on stage at Royal Albert Hall in 2011 [File: Neil Lupin/Redferns/Getty Images]
Source: Al Jazeera