B.B. King, Blues Guitar Legend, Dead at 89

May 15th, 2015


By Damian Fanelli                                                  Photo: Charlie Gillett Collection | Getty Images

B.B. King, the iconic American blues guitarist known for his velvety voice and sparse, staccato picking style, died Thursday night at age 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.

King was diagnosed with diabetes in the Eighties. In October, he was forced to cancel eight tour dates for dehydration and exhaustion.

The Mississippi native was often considered the “king of the blues” for more than six decades, dipping into two centuries. His distinctive playing style and many albums and singles influenced several generations of guitarists, from Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Peter Green, to Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer and beyond. Pretty much anyone who has called himself a “blues guitarist” for the past 50 years owes something to King.

His guitar solo from his 1969 hit “The Thrill is Gone” was named one of Guitar World‘s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos of All Time, coming in at Number 33.

As evidenced by “The Thrill is Gone” and countless other tracks, King was noted for being able to “say more with just three notes than anyone else could say with 100.”

King was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925. His life was the subject of the documentary B.B. King: The Life of Riley and the inspiration for the the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, which opened its doors in 2008.

Even into his late eighties, King refused to slow down, touring the world year-round as the de facto ambassador of the blues. 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.”

King finally started showing signs of his age in 2014. One show in St. Louis prompted his reps to issue an apology for “a performance that did not match Mr. King’s usual standard of excellence.” He fell ill in October after a show at Chicago’s House of Blues due to dehydration and exhaustion, prompting a rare cancellation of the remainder of his tour.

King was born on a cotton plantation near Itta Bena, Mississippi, the son of sharecroppers Albert and Nora Ella King. When Riley was 4 years old, his mother left his father for another man, and the boy was raised by his maternal grandmother, Elnora Farr, in Kilmichael, Mississippi.

King sang in the gospel choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kilmichael and bought his first guitar for around $15.00 when he was 12; however, some sources imply he got his first guitar from bluesman Bukka White, who happened to be his mother’s cousin. In 1943, King left Kilmichael to work as a tractor driver and play guitar with the Famous St. John’s Quartet of Inverness, Mississippi, performing at area churches and on WGRM in Greenwood, Mississippi.

In 1946, King followed Bukka White to Memphis, and White took him in for almost a year. In 1948, King was still living in Memphis when he landed a gig on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show. That led to a job at a West Memphis juke joint where he played six nights a week, earning $12 a night. While in Memphis, he met Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker, where he heard electric guitar for the first time. “T-Bone was, to me, that sound of being in heaven,” he said.

King’s 10-minute segment on Williamson’s radio show, known as “King’s Spot,” grew in popularity on radio station WDIA, and King shortened his current nickname, “Beale Street Blues Boy,” to “Blues Boy King,” which evolved into B.B. King.

His ascent continued in 1949 with his first recordings, “Miss Martha King/Take a Swing with Me” and “How Do You Feel When Your Baby Packs Up and Goes/I’ve Got the Blues.” His first hit record, “Three O’clock Blues,” was released in 1951 and stayed on the top of the charts for four months.

During this era, King first named his beloved guitar Lucille. In the mid-Fifties, King was performing in Twist, Arkansas, when some fans became unruly and started a fire. King ran out, forgetting his guitar, and risked his life to go back and get it. He later found out that two men fighting over a woman named Lucille knocked over a kerosene heater that started the fire. He named the guitar Lucille, “to remind myself never to do anything that foolish.”

King has used various models of Gibson guitars over the years and named them each Lucille. In the 1980s, Gibson officially dropped the model number ES-355 on the guitar King used and it became a custom-made signature model named Lucille, manufactured exclusively for the “King of the Blues.” Epiphone also makes a Lucille model.

“[Lucille] starts off singing and stays with me all the way until she takes the final bow,” King once said. “People ask why I don’t sing and play at the same time, I’ve answered that I can’t, but the deeper answer is that Lucille is one voice and I’m another. I hear those voices as distinct. One voice is coming through my throat, while the other is coming through my fingers. When one is singing, the other wants to listen.”

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