Still touring at 88, blues legend B.B. King makes a stop at the Warner Theatre on Thursday. Although known by his stage name rather than his birth name, Riley, it’s the Mississippi-born artist’s surname that matters most: King is widely considered the crowned head of blues music. His pioneering electric guitar and vocal style has earned him a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (and 15 individual Grammys), a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Armed with his soulful smile, bowtie and guitar named Lucille, King will take the stage after 8 p.m. Tickets are $33-$123 and available through Ticketmaster.
Here's a quick crash course on the music of this living legend.
"Back in the '50s, the songs he recorded were some of his best," said Nick Dale of the D.C. Blues Society. This number, where King croons his love to a girl who was 16 years old when they met, is one of the first pieces that helped him make it big. At first, Dale said, King was playing for exclusively African American audiences. In 1968, King played this song to an audience at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. When King found out the audience was mostly white, "he didn't quite know what to make of it," Dale said. "Then he walked out onto the stage and was greeted by a standing ovation, without even playing a note."
Much of King's music is about women. When he begins singing at minute three in 'Gambler’s Blues,' he waxes metaphorically about gambling and love: "They say it's strictly a game of give and take." Married and divorced twice, it seems King's true soul mate is the Gibson ES-355 guitar, known as Lucille. The name belongs to a woman who caused a fight between two men at one of his early shows. One of the men knocked over a kerosene stove, setting the venue on fire and leaving King to risk his life to save his guitar.
'The Thrill is Gone'
One of King's most well-known songs, "The Thrill is Gone" showcases King's knack for what Dale calls "guitar breaks." King began playing the electric guitar just as it was hitting the music scene. "Today, the electric guitar has a very different sound in people's minds," Dale said. "But it wasn't that clear back then. When he played it, it wasn't just a louder acoustic guitar. He discovered what you could do with it." The way King used single notes instead of chords for his solos influenced the entire genre of rock-and-roll that came after him.
'When Love Comes to Town (with U2)'
Artists from the British Isles love to credit African American musicians as their inspiration. The Beatles had Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones had Chuck Berry, and U2 shared the stage with their longtime inspiration, B.B. King. In the band’s 1988 concert film, "Rattle and Hum," King tells a ponytailed Bono, “You mighty young to write such heavy lyrics.”
"It’s amazing that B.B. King still does countless shows. He just loves it apparently, because I’m sure he doesn't need the money," Dale said. "Though he’s certainly earned it."