Paul A. Hebert / Inision /AP

‘King of the Blues’ guitarist BB King dead at 89

Guitarist BB King recorded 50 albums, toured into his 80s, won 15 Grammys and influenced a generation of guitarists

B.B. King, who took the blues from rural juke joints to the mainstream and influenced a generation of rock guitarists from Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan, while earning him the nickname King of the Blues, died late Thursday at home in Las Vegas.

His attorney, Brent Bryson, announced that King died peacefully in his sleep at 9:40 p.m. PDT.

Although he had continued to perform well into his 80s, the 15-time Grammy winner suffered from diabetes and had been in declining health during the past year. He collapsed during a concert in Chicago last October, blaming dehydration and exhaustion, before canceling the eight remaining performances of his tour. King had been in hospice care at his Las Vegas home.

“King’s is now the name most synonymous with the blues, much as Louis Armstrong’s once was with jazz,” critic Francis Davis wrote in “The History of the Blues” (1995). “You don’t have to be a blues fan to have heard of King.” 

Guitar Player magazine called him a “serious blues and jazz scholar,” with a library of more than 20,000 rare recordings in an article on King's musical influences and favorite guitarists. 

"If T-Bone Walker had been a woman, I would have asked him to marry me," King once said. "I’d never heard anything like that before: single-string blues played on an electric guitar.”

With a guitar named Lucille

For most of a career spanning nearly 70 years, Riley B. King was not only the undisputed king of the blues but a mentor to scores of guitarists, who included Eric Clapton, Otis Rush, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall and Keith Richards. He recorded more than 50 albums and toured the world well into his 80s, often performing 250 or more concerts a year.

King played a big Gibson guitar he affectionately called Lucille —named after a woman being fought over in an Arkansas dance hall —with a style that included beautifully crafted single-string runs punctuated by loud chords, subtle vibratos and bent notes.

The result could bring chills to an audience, no more so than when King used it to full effect on his signature song, “The Thrill is Gone.” He would make his guitar shout and cry in anguish as he told the tale of forsaken love, then end with a guttural shouting of the final lines: “Now that it's all over, all I can do is wish you well.”

His style was unusual. King didn't like to sing and play at the same time, so he developed a call-and-response with Lucille.

“When I sing, I play in my mind,” he told Rolling Stone in 2003. “The minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.”

A preacher uncle taught him to play, and he honed his technique in abject poverty in the Mississippi Delta, learning C, F and G chords from “a sanctified preacher named Archie Fair in the hills of Mississippi. He was my uncle’s brother-in-law,” King told Guitar Player.

“I've always tried to defend the idea that the blues doesn't have to be sung by a person who comes from Mississippi, as I did,” he said in the 1988 book “Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music.”

“People all over the world have problems,” he said. “And as long as people have problems, the blues can never die.”

Fellow travelers who took King up on that theory included Clapton, the British-born blues-rocker who collaborated with him on “Riding With the King,” a best-seller that won a Grammy in 2000 for best traditional blues album.

‘People all over the world have problems. And as long as people have problems, the blues can never die.’

B.B. King


Still, the Delta's influence was undeniable. King began picking cotton on tenant farms around Indianola, Mississippi, before he was a teenager, being paid as little as 35 cents for every 100 pounds, and was still working off sharecropping debts after he got out of the Army during World War II.

“He goes back far enough to remember the sound of field hollers and the cornerstone blues figures, like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson,” ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons once told Rolling Stone.

King got his start in radio with a gospel quartet in Mississippi, but soon moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where a job as a disc jockey at WDIA gave him access to a wide range of recordings. He studied the great blues and jazz guitarists, including Robert Nighthawk, Django Reinhardt and T-Bone Walker, and played live music a few minutes each day as the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” later shortened to B.B.

Through his broadcasts and live performances, he quickly built up a following in the black community, and recorded his first R&B hit, “Three O'Clock Blues,” in 1951.

He began to break through to white audiences, particularly young rock fans, in the 1960s with albums such as “Live at the Regal,” which would later be declared a historic sound recording worthy of preservation by the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.

It was not a straitght, smooth path. “I’ve had to put up with more humiliation than I care to remember” King said.

Widespread influence

According to Variety, King found himself in the rock’n’roll spotlight after Mike Bloomfield and Steve Miller persuaded promoter Bill Graham to book him into the Fillmore West with Miller and Moby Grape, another Bay Area band.

He further expanded his audience with an appearance at the 1968 Newport Folk Festival, where he appeared on a line-up that included Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Joan Baez and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

“He made Buddy Guy and Junior Wells' afternoon performance look mighty tame by comparison,” wrote Jon Landau in a review of the festival for Rolling Stone.

King opened shows for the Rolling Stones in 1969. A review of the Los Angeles show said King was “as brilliant in his guitar work as might be expected of a man who had influenced nearly every guitar player extant in rock.”

King was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and received the Songwriters Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush, gave a guitar to Pope John Paul II and had President Barack Obama sing along to his “Sweet Home Chicago.” He received Sweden’s prestigious Polar Prize for music in 2004. 

Sharecropper to restauranteur

Born Riley B. King on Sept. 16, 1925, on a tenant farm near Itta Bena, Mississippi, King was raised by his grandmother after his parents separated and his mother died. He worked as a sharecropper for five years in Kilmichael, an even smaller town, until his father found him and took him back to Indianola.

“I was a regular hand when I was 7. I picked cotton. I drove tractors. Children grew up not thinking that this is what they must do. We thought this was the thing to do to help your family,” he said.

When the weather was bad and he couldn't work in the cotton fields, he walked 10 miles to a one-room school before dropping out in the 10th grade.

After he broke through as a musician, it appeared King might never stop performing. When he wasn't recording, he toured the world relentlessly, playing 342 one-nighters in 1956. In 1989, he spent 300 days on the road. He opened a string of music clubs with restaurants. After he turned 80, he vowed he would cut back, and he did, somewhat, to about 100 shows a year.

He had 15 biological and adopted children. Family members say 11 survive.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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