B.B. King, the anointed “King of the Blues,” who took the blues from the Mississippi cotton fields to mainstream America and the world stage, died May 14. He was 89.
His daughter Patty King said he died in Las Vegas, where he announced two weeks ago that he was in home hospice care after suffering from dehydration and complications of diabetes.
King’s velvet voice and harmonic bent notes from his Gibson ES-355 guitar, which he fondly called “Lucille,” changed the blues landscape. King’s descriptive voice, like John Coltrane’s saxophone sound, could be detected in a few notes.
He loved telling the story of the name Lucille. Two men in a juke joint got into a fight over a woman named Lucille and knocked over a kerosene lamp. As the building was blazing, King ran back inside to get his $30 guitar. From that moment on, he called all his guitars Lucille to remind him of that incident.
He had a way of singing the blues. His call-and-response with Lucille gave some hope to the future. Make no mistake, it was deep-rooted blues straight out of Mississippi that pierced the soul with heartache, telling sad stories of broken romance.
“When I’m singing, I don’t want you to just hear the melody,” King told the Associated Press in 2006. “I want you to relive the story, because most of the songs have pretty good storytelling.”
His passionate storytelling and style of single-string run with loud chords engaged fans for six decades and influenced such artists as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Lenny Kravitz, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix.
King opening for the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour introduced him to America’s rock audiences. His 15 Grammy Awards include one for “The Thrill Is Gone” (1970), a hit on both the R&B and pop Billboard charts. It became one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
King appears on a 1970 Ellington album called “Stereophonic Duke Ellington,” where he contributes vocals to Ellington’s classic “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.” These two reigning musicians of jazz and blues royalty brought the music to the people and moved it forward. They were committed ambassadors of Black music, which they shared from the chitlin’ circuit to the international stage.
King also recorded two live recordings with his good friend and blues soul singer Bobby “Blue” Bland, “Together for the First Time” (1974) and “Together Again” (1976), which included their cover of Bland’s classic “That’s the Way Love Is.”
King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He rose from a Mississippi plantation to having a star on Hollywood Boulevard, being a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995 and being presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.
In 2000, he and Eric Clapton teamed up to record “Riding With the King,” which won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album and another with Dr. John for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for “Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t (My Baby).” In 2004, he was awarded the international Polar Music Prize and was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2014.
Riley B. King was born Sept. 16, 1925, to Albert and Nora Ella King, both sharecroppers, in Berclair, Miss.
At an early age, he sang in the gospel choir and learned basic guitar chords from his uncle, a preacher, while being raised by his maternal grandmother, Elnora Farr. By the early 1940s, his mother had passed away and his father was no longer around. Left basically on his own, he worked briefly in the cotton fields before leaving Kilmichael, Miss., to work as a tractor driver.
In 1941, he heard “King Biscuit Time,” a radio show out of Arkansas that featured the Mississippi Delta blues. The music and DJ, musician Sonny Boy Williamson, inspired him.
After being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, King made his way to Memphis, Tenn., to Beal Street, the city’s musical hub, where he landed a gig in one of the nightclubs. After being paid $12.50 for the night, he knew he would never return to that grueling plantation in Mississippi.
In an interview years later, King noted as a youngster he often played on street corners for dimes and nickels. “I earned more in one night singing on the corner than I did in one week working in the cotton field.”
The self-taught guitarist earned a reputation playing around Memphis and became a popular disc jockey and singer on radio station WDIA. His nickname at the station was “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which he changed to “Blues Boy,” and then finally to B.B.
In December 1951, King released a single, “Three O’Clock Blues,” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts, staying there for over three months. After this hit, King began playing the largest concert halls on the chitlin’ circuit, including Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Theater in Baltimore.
During this period, he also traveled with his own band, which included the tenor saxophonist George Coleman in 1955. “It was a great experience being in B.B.’s band, it was my first road tour,” said Coleman. He was a great person with great arrangers from Memphis. “He also liked jazz, and we had some of that with the blues.”
He recorded more than 50 albums and toured the world into his 80s, performing more than 275 concerts a year. In 2006, his tour included France, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The trombonist Art Baron joined King’s band for a three-month summer tour in 1995. “Playing with B.B. the master was a real education and groove. He opened my mind to dig deeper when I play the blues. He was a very generous and genuine guy.”
In December 1997, King performed in the Vatican’s fifth annual Christmas concert and presented his trademark guitar “Lucille” to Pope John Paul II.
In 1991, a chain of B.B. King’s Blues Clubs opened, beginning on Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn.; Universal City Walk in Los Angeles (1994); and New York City’s Times Square (2000); followed by clubs in Orlando, Fla., and in the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.
The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center opened in Mississippi in 2008.