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Celebrating the Face of the Blues

At 15,000 performances and counting, American music legend B.B. King turns 86 today

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"B.B. King," by Morgan Monceaux. Photo courtesy National Portrait Gallery

He still gives thrilling live shows, roaming the country relentlessly at the back of his customized tour bus. He has an entire chain of nightclubs named after him, a Sirius XM Radio station devoted to his music, and is one of few living performers to have an entire museum dedicated to his career. And after more than 15,000 performances, B.B. King celebrates his 86th birthday today as one of America’s most influential music icons.

“For many people, he personifies the blues,” says John Hasse, a curator of culture and the arts at the American History Museum. “His amiable stage presence, singular singing style, trademark guitar sound and unchallenged authenticity made the blues seem real.”

Born Riley King, as a child on the cotton plantations of Mississippi he was interested in music from an early age and bought his first guitar for $15 at age twelve. Within years, he was playing at local churches and on the radio. “In 1946, he moved to Memphis,” Hasse says. “He became a DJ on the black-run radio station, WDIA.” There, he took on the nickname Beale Street Blues Boy, which eventually got shortened to B.B.

“By the late 40s, he was making recordings, and then in the 1950s he started becoming a significant figure in rhythm and blues,” says Hasse. What would soon set King apart from dozens of other national R&B figures, though, was his ability to appeal to mainstream pop listeners, mostly white. “In the 1960s, he really started achieving national popularity outside the blues nightclubs. There was a breakthrough when the Fillmore, in San Francisco, booked him for a concert,” Hasse says.

Along with playing at the Fillmore, a hub for up-and-coming rock acts, King’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival introduced his brand of blues to a whole new audience. “King was a pioneering urban blues player, very polished and very sophisticated,” says Hasse. “He had a unique and appealing guitar sound and a magnetic stage presence at a time when this music was being discovered by white college students as never before.”

King has toured and recorded new music almost continuously in the many decades since, always performing with a guitar he calls Lucille, after a woman at the center of a fight at one of his concerts in 1949. For blues aficionados, his style is unmistakable. “He developed a singular sound on the guitar. Someone who’s an attentive listener could identify him by one or two notes—it’s that singing sound, the vibrato and bent string,” Hasse says.

His innovations have put a distinctive stamp on a range of genres of American music, starting with rock and roll. “He put the guitar in the forefront of the performance,” Hasse says. “Making the guitar an extension of his voice, it’s not the guitar versus the voice, but they really form one continuum.”

In the National Portrait Gallery, a mixed-media collage of King pays tribute to his legacy. Morgan Monceaux, a Baltimore-based visionary artist, creates unusual portraits by integrating found everyday objects into his pastel paintings; “B.B. King” includes objects such as lace, buttons and a tie. Two of his other works, “Dinah Washington” and “Ray Charles” also honor influential musicians as part of the Gallery’s collection.

At this point in musical history, Hasse feels, King’s significance is as great as ever. “In the last decade or two, there’s been a lot of looking back, to see what is musically valuable in the twentieth century,” he says. “I think there’s been a hunger for music of quality, music that goes the distance, music that’s authentic, and B.B. King just naturally rises to the top. He’s an American classic.”

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