B.B. King, whose real name is Riley King, was born in Berclair, Mississippi and raised in Kilmichael, Mississippi. (His initials stand for “Blues Boy.”)
King was raised a Baptist, regularly attending the Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kilmichael. He also grew up going to Elkhorn School, which was affiliated with the church by the same name.
Though King began his career as a musician in church, singing gospel in the choir and learning guitar from his pastor, he realized fairly quickly that, as a musician, there wasn’t much money in the religion game. He said:
In my early teens, I would sit on the street corners and play gospel songs. People would listen, applaud, pat me on the head, and tell me, ‘You’ll be good one day.’ But they never tipped. When I played a blues song, though, they always tipped. Always. That’s when I knew I wanted to play the blues.
Religion has popped up in King’s music from time to time (it’s no surprise, there’s been over 60 years of his music so far) such as in the song “Ole Time Religion,” where he sings:
It was good for my old mother/And it’s good enough for me/It was good for the Hebrew children/And it’s good enough for me/It was good for Paul and Silas/And it’s good enough for me/Give me that old time religion/It is good enough for me.
King hasn’t been all that much into politics. By all accounts, he seems to only care where his music takes him–and that might be to a Republican show or a Democrat show. And as a public figure for the better part of the 20th Century, King has surely seen the ebb and flow of a lot of political progression.
You might think that he awakened during the 1960s as the Civil Rights Movement raged around him. But no. He said:
Being a blues singer is like being black twice. While the civil rights movement was fighting for the respect of black people, I felt I was fighting for the respect of the blues.
King was good friends with a fellow named Lee Atwater, a notorious, mudslinging Republican political strategist who spearheaded campaigns for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and was briefly the chairman of the Republican National Convention. Plus, he was a blues guitarist and huge B.B. King fan. Atwater tapped King for various Republican political performances, perhaps most notably for Bush’s “Eagles” fundraiser, an event hosting 800 of Bush’s wealthiest contributors.
So was he a Republican? I don’t think so.
Ultimately, it seems that the issue closest to King’s heart is the blues, and the world just keeps spinning. But we could possibly view King’s devotion to the preservation and continuation of an African American art form as political in its own way. As things like this have a way with doing, it’s likely King will be viewed by history as somewhat of an important figure for his time and society.