It seemed as if he’d go on forever — and B.B. King was working right up until the end. It’s what he loved to do: playing music, and fishing. Even late in life, living with diabetes, he spent about half the year on the road. King died Thursday night at home in Las Vegas. He was 89 years old.
He was born Riley B. King on a plantation in Itta Bena, Miss. He played on street corners before heading to Memphis, Tenn., where he stayed with his cousin, the great country bluesman Bukka White. His career took off thanks to radio; he got a spot on the radio show of Sonny Boy Williamson II, then landed his own slot on black-run WDIA in Memphis. He needed a handle. At first it was Beale Street Blues Boy. Then Blues Boy King. Finally B.B. King stuck.
You can’t mention names without talking about his guitar, Lucille. It was actually more than one. The story goes that the first was a $30 acoustic he was playing at a dance in Arkansas when two men got in a fight, kicked over a stove and started a fire. When King was safe outside, he realized he’d left the guitar inside. He ran back into the burning dance hall to save it. After he learned the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he decided to name his guitar for her to remind himself never to get into a fight over a woman. And since then, every one of his trademark Gibson ES-355s has been named Lucille.
The sound he got out of her was what set him apart. Playing high up on the neck, he’d push a string as he picked it, bending the note to make it cry. He didn’t burn a lot of fast licks, but you could feel each note he played. Nobody sounded like B.B. King, though later on plenty of rockers tried. (Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green got closest.)
B. B. King, Defining Bluesman for Generations, Dies at 89 ~ NYT
B. B. King, whose world-weary voice and wailing guitar lifted him from the cotton fields of Mississippi to a global stage and the apex of American blues, died Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 89.
It was reported on Mr. King’s website that he died in his sleep.
Mr. King married country blues to big-city rhythms and created a sound instantly recognizable to millions: a stinging guitar with a shimmering vibrato, notes that coiled and leapt like an animal, and a voice that groaned and bent with the weight of lust, longing and lost love.
“I wanted to connect my guitar to human emotions,” Mr. King said in his autobiography, “Blues All Around Me” (1996), written with David Ritz.
B.B. King in 2010.Artists Respond to B. B. King’s Death on Social MediaMAY 15, 2015
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interactive The Music They Made: B. B. King (March 2, 2003)
In performances, his singing and his solos flowed into each other as he wrung notes from the neck of his guitar, vibrating his hand as if it were wounded, his face a mask of suffering. Many of the songs he sang — like his biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone” (“I’ll still live on/But so lonely I’ll be”) — were poems of pain and perseverance.
The music historian Peter Guralnick once noted that Mr. King helped expand the audience for the blues through “the urbanity of his playing, the absorption of a multiplicity of influences, not simply from the blues, along with a graciousness of manner and willingness to adapt to new audiences and give them something they were able to respond to.”
B. B. stood for Blues Boy, a name he took with his first taste of fame in the 1940s. His peers were bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, whose nicknames fit their hard-bitten lives. But he was born a King, albeit in a sharecropper’s shack surrounded by dirt-poor laborers and wealthy landowners.
Mr. King went out on the road and never came back after one of his first recordings reached the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts in 1951. He began in juke joints, country dance halls and ghetto nightclubs, playing 342 one-night stands in 1956 and 200 to 300 shows a year for a half-century thereafter, rising to concert halls, casino main stages and international acclaim.
He was embraced by rock ’n’ roll fans of the 1960s and ’70s, who remained loyal as they grew older together. His playing influenced many of the most successful rock guitarists of the era, including Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
Mr. King considered a 1968 performance at the Fillmore West, the San Francisco rock palace, to have been the moment of his commercial breakthrough, he told a public-television interviewer in 2003. A few years earlier, he recalled, an M.C. in an elegant Chicago club had introduced him thus: “O.K., folks, time to pull out your chitlins and your collard greens, your pigs’ feet and your watermelons, because here is B. B. King.” It had infuriated him.
When he saw “long-haired white people” lining up outside the Fillmore, he said, he told his road manager, “I think they booked us in the wrong place.” Then the promoter Bill Graham introduced him to the sold-out crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the chairman of the board, B. B. King.”
“Everybody stood up, and I cried,” Mr. King said. “That was the beginning of it.”
B.B. King, the larger-than-life guitarist and singer who helped popularize electric blues and brought it to audiences for more than six decades, died Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 89. King, who was diagnosed with diabetes nearly 30 years ago, was hospitalized last month due to dehydration. Last October, he was forced to cancel eight tour dates for dehydration and exhaustion. His attorney, Brent Bryson, confirmed his death to the Associated Press.
B.B. King performs in The Hague, Netherlands. On the Bus With B.B. King: Our Definitive 1998 Feature »
Into his late eighties, King toured the world year-round as the unrivaled ambassador of the blues. His indelible style – a throaty, throttling vocal howl paired with a ringing single-note vibrato sound played on his electric guitar named Lucille – defined the genre. He won 15 Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
“He is without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” Eric Clapton wrote in his 2008 biography, “and the most humble and genuine man you would ever wish to meet. In terms of scale or stature, I believe that if Robert Johnson was reincarnated, he is probably B.B. King.”
B.B. King And The Majesty Of The Blues
More than 25 years ago, Stanley Crouch wrote the sermon “Premature Autopsies,” which was dutifully delivered by Trinity United’s Rev. Jeremiah Wright (likely around the same time he met a young Barack Obama) on Wynton Marsalis’s 1989 recording Majesty of the Blues. The centerpiece of Crouch’s sermon, which challenged perceptions that Jazz was dead, was the singular example of Duke Ellington, who as Crouch asserts, “never, never came off the road.” Ellington’s genius was as much his ability recognize great musicians who could interpret his vision of the music as it was his understanding that the music would only survive if he and others were willing to take it to the people. Like so many of the musicians of Ellington’s generation who understood both the blessing and the curse of the Chitlin’ circuit, where black artists survived shoddy treatment for the chance to have a connection with the people for whom the music was so crucial, Ellington also understood, particularly after his groundbreaking performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, that staying on the road was also about delivering the message of “The Majesty of the Blues,” which to say the majesty of America’s national music.
When Ellington died in May of 1974, he may have bequeathed the responsibility of keeping the music alive to a guitarist from Mississippi who initially made his name in Memphis in the late 1940s as “Blues Boy” King. Indeed B.B. King appears on a 1970 Ellington album called Stereophonic Duke Ellington, where he contributes vocals to the Ellington classic “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,”
At the time of Ellington’s death, King was the undisputed “King of the Blues”— the most recognizable and accessible icon of a sound that was in flux. As a generation of white British blokes sang the praises of Mr. Waters (who played Newport a few years after Ellington), Mr. Dixon, Mr. Hooker, Mr. Wolf, and Blues artists found both an audience and increased pay days in Europe and touring on the rock circuit, artists like Albert King (“Born Under a Bad Sign”) , Little Milton (“We’re Gonna Make It”) and B.B. King found themselves trying to tread the muddy waters of crossover by gravitating to the audiences that Stax, Atlantic and even Motown had cultivated.
With the release “The Thrill is Gone” (1969), B.B. King solidified his role as Black music’s ambassador to the world. Throughout the 1970s King also found crossover success with singles like “Ain’t Nobody Home” (1972) and “To Know You Is To Love You” (1973), which was written and originally recorded by Stevie Wonder and Syretta Wright; Wonder appears on the King version, effectively capturing two generations of black music listeners, at a moment when Wonder was ascending to his own iconic status. By the time King released 1974’s Friends, with the title track and the instrumental “Philadelphia,” which sounds like the best of what was produced at Sigma Sound Studios in that era, the mainstream pop audiences were gone, looking more for nostalgia from the Claptons and Steve Millers of the world than forward thinking from “old” Blues musicians.