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Blues Legend B. B. King Receives Lifetime Achievement Award from FedEx

October 28, 2008

“Everybody wants to know, why I sing the blues!” For music giant B.B. King, those lyrics are rooted in a legendary story that began more than 80 years ago.

On October 28, FedEx presented the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award to B.B. King during the star-studded Annual National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Awards gala in Memphis. In past years, FedEx presented the Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Stevie Wonder and actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

Speaking on behalf of FedEx at the 2008 event, FedEx Express CFO Cathy Ross told the audience that the FedEx Lifetime Achievement Award is a tribute to those who have worked to improve lives, create new opportunities, and in the process, brighten our world. “B.B. King is being honored tonight for using his success in music to help rebuild lives and instill pride in our youth about the blues culture,” said Cathy. “His music has been applauded on stages around the world, but he has never forgotten his roots. His work in establishing a prison rehabilitation program in Mississippi as well as his efforts to inspire young people through the B.B. King Museum are among his many contributions to the place he calls ‘home.'”

In 1925, Riley B. King was born on a plantation near Indianola, Mississippi — located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Even at an early age, he understood what the blues was all about. His mother passed away when he was only nine years old and he was forced to work in the cotton fields to support himself.

As a youth, King’s first love was gospel music. On Saturday evenings, after working in the cotton fields, he’d sit on street corners singing gospel songs. As he bellowed out one tune after another, people would come by, pat him on the head and say, “Keep trying, son. You’re going to be good one day.” King soon discovered that when he sang gospel songs, he’d get lots of pats on the head. But when he sang the blues, he’d get paid. As a youth, he would sometimes play in as many as four towns a night.

In 1947, King set his sights on the big city and hitch-hiked to Memphis in search of a music career. However, his first big break didn’t come until 1948 when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s KWEM radio program in West Memphis, Arkansas. He later found work as a disc jockey in Memphis at WDIA radio station. As a radio personality, he was nicknamed “the Beale Street Blues Boy,” but the name was later shortened to “B.B.”

In the mid-1950s, while King was performing in Twist, Arkansas, two men began to fight and knocked over a kerosene stove, setting the hall on fire. B.B. raced outdoors to safety but soon realized he’d left his expensive thirty-dollar guitar inside. He ran back into the burning building to save his guitar – and narrowly escaped death. When he later learned that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he decided to give the name to his guitar as a reminder to never do a crazy thing like fight over a woman.

Over the years, King has successfully mixed traditional blues, jazz, and mainstream pop into a unique style, embraced by people of all races, backgrounds and cultures. He also developed one of the world’s most innovative guitar styles which influenced thousands of players including Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Jeff Beck.

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