B. B. King (139955)

“The blues people have been treated like the Blacks have been—unfairly, and for me it was almost like being black twice,” B.B. King once lamented. That treatment eventually gave way to global admiration, mainly from a voice and guitar that moaned in unison about love, heartbreak, and bad times. His name was indicative of his place in the blues hierarchy. King, 89, made his transition Thursday in Las Vegas.

King, according to his attorney Brent Bryson, died peacefully in his sleep at his home where he had been resting since October after falling ill during a concert. For a score of years he was suffering from Type II diabetes. Many of us was made aware of this from his public service announcements about the importance of diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

In the same way Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong became the ambassador of jazz, King was the personification of the blues, particularly that brand of modern urban blues where the electric guitar replaced the acoustic sound of previous eras. His trembling vibrato on his Gibson guitar, his “Lucille,” his fingers moving almost pneumatically along the frets created a sound as distinctive as his voice.

Born Riley King on September 16, 1925, in the Mississippi Delta near Itta Bena, (B.B., his famous nickname was a shortened version of Beale Street Boy and later Blues Boy) King was raised on a cotton farm by his maternal grandmother, Elnora Farr, after his parents separated and his mother died when he was nine. In his autobiography Blues All Around Me with writer David Ritz, King elaborated on his early years and the meaning of the blues, and the history of slavery in his family.

“My great-grandmother, who’d also had been a slave, talked about the old days,” King recalled. “She’d talk about the beginning of blues. She said that, sure, singing helped the days go by. Singing about your sadness unburdens your soul. But the blues shouters hollered about more than being sad. They were also delivering messages in musical code.” These messages took many forms when transmuted through King’s musical intelligence and ability, and as his great-grandmother, emphasized the blues was about survival.

But it wasn’t long before the gifted musician was extending the lessons acquired from Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson, and his cousin, the renowned Booker “Bukka” White. Given these influences and their instructions, he moved effortlessly from picking cotton to picking the guitar, and by 1940, at 15, he had mastered the fundamentals of the blues.

By 1943, he assembled his first group but the focus then was on gospel, which he believed would be an easier path toward success. He perfected his performances by playing in church on Sunday and everywhere else during the week, particularly on the street corners of Indianola, Mississippi. During World War II, he joined the Army but that lasted only three months and he was soon free to pursue his music full time, though now the gospel had morphed into the blues.

King moved to Memphis and shared a flat with his cousin Bukka White in late forties. He was performing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM when he got the exposure he needed. From this discovery he was able to get several gigs around town and his own show on WDIA. It was during his tenure at WDIA that he wrangled his first recording date in 1947 and “Miss Martha King,” named for his first wife, was one of the four sides. Oddly, the date included future jazz pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. Also, Phineas’s brother Calvin was on bass and his father was the drummer. Tuff Green was the bassist, “and one of the best,” King told Ritz.

In 1951, King had his first hit “3 O’Clock Blues” with Ike Turner on piano. The phenomenal success of this recording earned him a wider reputation and opportunities to perform across the country, none more promising that as a feature act at the Apollo Theatre.

A few years later, King and his faithful Lucille were headliners at a number of major venues. By the way, there’s a colorful story about why the guitar was called Lucille. He was performing at a gig in Arkansas when two guys got in a fight over a girl named Lucille. During the altercation they knocked over a kerosene lamp and the place went up in flames. After scurrying from the fire, he remembered he had fled without his guitar and hurried back in and rescued it—it became his trusty Lucille.

One of his memorable dates at the Apollo was in 1969, four years after his breakout album “Live at the Regal” in Chicago. In her book The Sound of Soul, the late Phyl Garland captured the essence of his style on his version of “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now”: “He begins the phrase at a high falsetto,” she wrote, “easing down through a series of flatted blue notes into his mellow mid-range, turning his head to the side, shaking it in disbelief and grimacing at the ingratitude of this invisible woman. Squeals of delight at recognition of this common human plight issue from the audience as he repeats the statement in slightly altered form, building up to a tortured confession.”

From 1951 to 1968, King had 31 hits, 15 of them in the Top 10. Some other numbers are noteworthy—he survived 18 car crashes, and did 342 one-night stands in 1956. His popularity had zoomed but in 1969-70 he recorded his biggest hit “The Thrill is Gone.”

It not only soared on the R&B charts, but broke into the top 20 on pop stations. At last he had crossed over, so to speak, right up there with Andy Williams and Diana Ross.

With his fame came fortune, too, though not without the occasional tax setbacks, divorce proceedings, and other things the flesh is heir to. These things, however, could not halt his popular acclaim, the worldwide tours, the performances with such notables as U2 and Bono, Jimi Hendrix, et al. And in the same way he was influenced by the blues icons who preceded him King has a coterie of luminaries in his wake—Eric Clapton, Mike Bromfield, Buddy Guy, Albert King, and countless others.

In the ever changing fashion of music, King maintained his place, secured by a steely determination and an incomparable flexibility that he explained in his autobiography. “My music flexibility is a funny thing,” he wrote. “I believe my ability to trim my sails got me through some rough musical storms. To some extent, I adapted in the fifties and sixties. I wasn’t rock and roll and I wasn’t strictly soul, but I made enough adjustments to keep me fresh. When disco came storming through the seventies, I hardly had a disco sound, but by then I had a loyal audience who liked their blues strong and straight-ahead. My almost exclusively Black audience from the early days had turned predominantly white. That left me conflicted.”

Some of that conflict was assuaged with the plethora of awards, including 15 Grammys as well as the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and his induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

And if he was at all concerned about his Black fans all he needed to do was stop in one evening at the club named after him on 42nd Street and he will find where all the love for has gone.

The blues followed King matrimonially. He was married twice, from 1942 to ’52 to Martha Lee Denton and then from 1958-66 to Sue Hall. He fathered 15 children with multiple women and had more than 50 grandkids. “About 15 times, a lady has said, ‘It’s either me or Lucille.’ That’s why I’ve had 15 children by 15 women.”

The salutes in his life was topped off in 1995 when he received the Kennedy Center Honors from President Clinton, upon which he said: “Anytime the most powerful man in the world takes 10 to 15 minutes to sit and talk with me, an old guy from Indianola, Miss., that’s a memory imprinted in my head that forever will be there.”

Yes, the thrill of King’s wonderful blues may be gone but the melody of his glorious stay with us lingers on.