The long and remarkable life of B.B. King began near this site, where he was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925. His parents, Albert and Nora Ella King, were sharecroppers who lived in a simple home southeast of here along Bear Creek. After his parents separated when he was four, King lived in Kilmichael and Lexington before moving as a teen to Indianola, which he referred to as his hometown.
“Ambassador of the Blues” and “King of the Blues” are titles Riley “B.B.” King earned as the result of decades of touring around the world. But the life of King, who is probably the most influential musician in the history of the blues, could not have begun more humbly. His earliest years were spent at a sharecroppers’ cabin a little more than half a mile southeast of this marker.
King’s parents split up when he was a small child. He and his mother moved around, eventually settling fifty miles east in Kilmichael with his grandmother, Elnora Farr; both died while King was young. Following a brief stay with his father’s new family in Lexington and living on his own in Kilmichael, King moved in 1943 to Indianola. There he worked as a tractor driver, got married, performed with a gospel quartet, and began actively playing the blues.
In the late ’40s King moved to Memphis to pursue a musical career. By 1949 he had found work as a deejay on radio station WDIA, in addition to winning talent contests at the Palace Theater. At WDIA he earned the nickname “B.B.”—short for “Blues Boy.” His career took off in 1952 with his first No. 1 rhythm & blues hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” and over the next decades he scored dozens of hits on the RPM, Kent, ABC, BluesWay, and MCA labels. He toured relentlessly, performing over 350 one-night stands one year. Until the 1960s the vast majority of King’s fans were African Americans, but by the end of that decade young whites had embraced his music. His guitar playing has served as a model for countless blues, rock, and rhythm & blues musicians.
King’s 1970 crossover hit “The Thrill Is Gone”—which provided him with the first of over a dozen Grammy awards—was the launching point for international stardom. Among his many subsequent recordings were collaborations with artists across the musical spectrum including Willie Nelson, U2, Eric Clapton, Luciano Pavarotti and Heavy D. All the while King never forgot the folks back home, and in the ’60s began making regular visits back to Mississippi for events including an annual celebration in honor of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and later, a “B.B. King Homecoming” celebration in Indianola and workshops with students at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena. In 2004 the school created the B.B. King Recording Studio in his honor, and in 2008 Mississippi honored one of its favorite sons with the opening of the elaborate B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola.