John Covach does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. Widely considered one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century, he became, in his later years, a celebrated icon of blues authenticity.
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Had it not been for his early days in radio, however, things might have turned out differently for a young Riley King. Whether it was access to a large record collection or gigs fueled by his growing celebrity as a DJ, the young bluesman brilliantly exploited each opportunity that came his way.
Radio in the years after World War II was changing rapidly. The nationally syndicated networks that had driven radio in previous decades were now devoting their resources to a new technology: television. As TV increasingly drew a mass, national audience, radio homed in on appealing to local and regional listeners.
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This shift gave stations the freedom to innovate. In late , a young BB King was an aspiring blues artist then performing under his birth name, Riley King. He made his way from Indianola, Mississippi to Memphis by working on a delivery truck to pay his fare. King, who had worked primarily in the cotton fields of Mississippi while singing with a gospel choir and playing blues on the street, sought out greener pastures in the music business.
To keep this new gig, King had to get the club mentioned on the radio. He later said that he partly modeled his on-air personality on the nationally known white radio host and performer Arthur Godfrey.
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Soon, he was playing regional shows in addition to the local Memphis ones. Being on the radio also helped King understand audiences: he learned what listeners wanted and how to craft an on-stage personality.
This allowed him to become familiar with a wide range of musical styles within rhythm and blues — something that would not have been possible for almost anyone outside of the industry. Aside from being exposed to new sounds, he got to know the artists and the industry representatives who came through town to promote their records. But when Jules Bihari and his brothers came through town promoting Modern Records at the station, they met King, who had been recommended to them by Ike Turner King and Ike had done some gigs together.
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