“I’m a Blues Man, but I’m a Good Man”: B. B. King and the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Today’s tribute was written by Dr. Tina Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

“The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.” ~ B. B. King


B. B. King, blues legend and one of the greatest guitarists in music history, transitioned last week. With hits such as “The Thrill is Gone” (1969), “To Know You is to Love You” (1973), “Never Make a Move Too Soon” (1978), and “Midnight Believer” (1978), B. B. King defined music in America and around the world. His talents influenced countless other artists, including Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the Rolling Stones. B. B. King loved to tour and interact with audiences by telling short stories about loves and loves lost, between songs.

Riley B. King was born on a plantation near the town of Itta Bena, Mississippi on September 16, 1925. As a child, he sang in local gospel choirs and at age 12, purchased his first guitar for $15.00. King made his way to Memphis, Tennessee where in 1948 he got his big break – performing on the Sonny Boy Williamson radio show on KWEM. His performance led to short 10-minute segments on the black-staffed radio station WDIA. The popularity of the segments prompted King to adopt a catchy radio name. He started using Beale Street Blues Boy, then shorten it to Blues Boy King, and eventually decided on B. B. King. In 1949, B. B. King started recording his songs and touring across the country. At a performance in Twist, Arkansas, two male patrons got into a fight that caused a fire. B. B. King barely escaped the club with his Gibson guitar. After learning that the fight was over a woman named Lucille, B. B. King decided to name his guitar after her, as a reminder to never fight over a woman.

B. B. King and President George W. Bush (NAID 7431369)
President George W. Bush Presents Riley “B. B.” King with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House (NAID 7431369)

In 2006, B. B. King received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. The honor is bestowed to those who have contributed to the national interest of the United States, through actions of world peace, culture, and other significant public endeavors. An image from the ceremony is included in the series Photographs Related to the George W. Bush Administration (NAID 5962237). B. B. King was honored for his contribution to American music and making a place for the blues within mainstream genres.


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