When Elvis met BB King

When rock ‘n’ roll legend Elvis Presley met BB King, one of the most iconic blues singers in history, they became friends and musical collaborators for more than 20 years.

They were so close in their youth that they were the “original Blues Brothers”, according to King, who said Presley knew more blues songs than most other people in the music industry.

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Their friendship and how it developed was portrayed in Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 movie, Elvis. The film suggested their friendship began due to a shared love of music and the fact they both grew up in poverty and hardship.

King’s early years

Born in September 1925, on the Bear Creek cotton plantation in Berclair, Mississippi, Riley B King was the son of tenant farmers Albert and Nora King.

The area was impoverished, and his parents lived by an arrangement called sharecropping. This meant they had to give the landowner a percentage of the crops grown on their agricultural plot.

King sang in the Baptist church gospel choir as a youngster but was drawn to the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ because he liked the music. The minister accompanied the service on his Sears Roebuck Silvertone guitar. He taught King how to play a few chords, igniting a lifelong passion for the guitar.

After moving to Indianola, Mississippi, as a teenager, King worked at a cotton processing factory. He joined the US Army at the start of World War II, but the government released him because he could drive a tractor, so he was classed as an essential worker on the home front.

In 1943, he began playing guitar with the famous St John’s Gospel Singers in Inverness, Mississippi. He played on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on KWEM in Memphis in 1948 and soon attracted a following.

He then started working as a singer and DJ at WDIA, where he had the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy”. This was later shortened to “BB”, which became his stage name. Beale Street, in Downtown Memphis, was legendary for its blues music.

In 1949, King won a record contract with RPM Records. Many of his early records were produced by Sam Phillips, who went on to found Sun Records. King later said Beale Street was where it all started for him – he was a regular face there in the early 1950s.

His recording contract led to tours across the US at major venues in cities including Chicago, Washington DC, Los Angeles, St Louis and Detroit. He also played smaller gigs at clubs across the southern United States, making his name as a blues singer and musician.

Presley’s early years

Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in January 1935 to Vernon Elvis and Gladys Presley. The family lived in a small, two-room house that Vernon built.

Like King, the young Elvis had a lifelong love of music inspired by a religious childhood, spent at the Assembly of God Church. He always enjoyed a close bond with his mother who was a devout church goer.

His father moved jobs frequently and lacked ambition, so the Presleys were poor, relying on neighbours and government assistance. They lost their home in 1938, when Vernon was jailed for altering a cheque. Gladys and three-year-old Elvis went to live with relatives.

His first public appearance was on 3rd October 1945, when he sang the country song, Old Shep, at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. He was given a guitar for his 11th birthday and used to take it to school every day. He learned to play “a little bit”, although initially, he admitted to feeling shy about playing in public.

Moving to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1948, the family had to lodge in a boarding house for almost a year before moving into a two-bedroom apartment at Lauderdale Courts – a public housing complex.

In 1950, his neighbour, the rockabilly singer Lee Denson, started tutoring Presley in guitar-playing. In his spare time, Presley would head to Beale Street, where King used to hang out, to listen to live blues music. He couldn’t read music and had received no formal musical training, rather playing “by ear”.

Presley went into the offices of Memphis Recording Service in August 1953. The company was run by Sam Phillips before he launched Sun Records. He recorded a two-sided disc – That’s When Your Heartaches Begin and My Happiness – for his mother.

Phillips noted his name, but nothing came of it at first and Presley started work at Crown Electric company, driving trucks. However, Phillips later invited him back to the studio, as he was looking for someone who sounded different. Presley was joined by two local musicians; upright bass player Bill Black and guitarist Winfield “Scotty” Moore, who were hand-picked by Phillips.

The evening recording session, on 5th July 1954, launched Presley’s career when his rendition of the 1946 blues song, That’s All Right, set the room alight. Phillips realised it was the sound he’d been looking for and recorded the song with Presley, Black and Moore.

Three days later, That’s All Right was played by Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips on his Red, Hot and Blue show. As soon as they heard it, listeners started phoning in, desperate to find out the singer’s identity. Presley became a star overnight… literally!

When did Elvis meet BB King?

Luhrmann’s biopic depicted Presley and King first partying together on Beale Street as young men. The film led to debate about whether the two icons were really such close friends. The general consensus is that the storyline in the movie is true to life.

This view is based on many interviews with King after Presley’s untimely death, at the age of 42, in 1977. The area of Tupelo, where Presley grew up, was impoverished and made up of a predominantly black community.

When Presley and his family moved to Memphis, between the age of 14 and 18, he lived at Lauderdale Courts, which was a stone’s throw from Beale Street. Presley and King are shown as friends, laughing and joking together as they listen to the incredible music there, in the film.

King confirmed this was true several times during his life, saying they both came from a similar background of poverty and had to earn their way into the music industry, which created a bond. In an interview, he famously said they were both “born poor in Mississippi, went through poor childhoods and learned and earned our way through music”.

King, speaking to a reporter in 2010 for a feature in the San Antonio Examiner, revealed he had felt a real kinship for Presley. Their mutual struggle to get into the music industry and survive fostered a true friendship. They often chatted about music and how it transcended colour and race.

He said Elvis shared the view that music was “owned by the whole universe” and wasn’t “exclusive to the black man, white man or any other colour”. This was significant because when they first met, racism and segregation were prevalent across the US.

Presley was fully aware of the bigger problems King faced as a black musician and later helped his friend to get a major gig. In his autobiography, Blues All Around Me, King remembered how Presley organised a live show for him in 1972 at the prestigious Hilton Hotel.

Presley had made a call and booked the show for King in the lounge. Presley himself had been playing live in the hotel’s main theatre. King said this was something that Presley did for him several times.

After the shows, the two of them would meet up, talk and play music. King said he would play Lucille on his guitar, and they would both sing. “It was his way of relaxing,” King explained. “We were the original Blues Brothers.”

While Luhrmann’s film has been questioned for its portrayal of their relationship, the plot appears accurate, according to King’s subsequent interviews. The two iconic artists maintained their friendship for the duration of Presley’s career, until his tragic death.

King, who died in 2015, aged 89, often recalled the mutual respect he and Presley had for one another. He also remembered their shared love of what had been viewed as “black music”, until Presley came along.

How important are meetings?

The chance meeting between Elvis Presley and BB King, more than half a century ago, shaped their life for years to come. Those jamming sessions after gigs were inspiring interludes when the two icons got together to play music in a relaxed post-show atmosphere.

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