B.B. King

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B.B. King is an icon of American music. He is a blues musician whose distinctive guitar playing and evocative voice have inspired generations of rock and jazz performers. For the final session of his 2007 Harvard Extension School class “A History of Blues in America,” Professor Charles Sawyer staged a tribute concert to B.B. King, including performances by blues artists J. Geils, “Monster” Mike Welch, Sweet Willie D., Sunny Crownover, and Sawyer's own band, 2120 South Michigan Avenue. This program features complete footage of that concert as well as interviews with B.B. King and Rounder Records producer Scott Billington, and photographs depicting King's life from birth to stardom and the world of blues artists.

Born in 1925 in the Mississippi Delta, King was a virtual orphan at age 14, living alone in the hills east of the Delta country and sharecropping one acre of cotton. Eventually, King became a disk jockey, then a band leader, then was "discovered" by Ike Turner, who sent his records to Modern Records in California. At one point in his life, B.B. King was touring and playing concerts 300 nights a year. Now, King is in his 80's and still playing concerts. He has played in more than 90 countries and been honored at the Kennedy Center, and has received dozens of awards and honors including an official "B.B. King Day" proclaimed by the Missisippi state legislature.

King was profoundly influenced by mother's cousin Booker White, a Delta Blues musician who played slide guitar. King wanted to make that sound, but was clumsy with the slide. Instead, King invented a unique method of rotating his hand from the elbow to play the string, producing a distinctive, fluid pulse of sound. King also innovated by melding country blues with more urbane, modern music,  mixing jazz harmonies into solos.

B.B. King's work is literally quoted in popular songs. "Blues is like the background radiation from the Big Bang," Sawyer says in an interview. There are traces of blues in almost every form of popular American music. B.B. King's genius has brightened the entire musical world.

For more information about Professor Sawyer's class, see Harvard Extension School's MUSI-E-139 “A History of Blues in America.”