B.B. King. A name recognizable throughout the entire “free” world was pronounced dead at 9:40 p.m. Thursday at the hospice he’d been living at in Las Vegas, Nevada. The 89 year-old musician will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the greatest guitarists to have ever played.
Beyond all of his accomplishments throughout his life, including more than 40 studio albums, his induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the millions of albums he sold or the 15 Grammys he won, Riley B. King, born in Mississippi in 1925 will be most remembered for the way he made his guitar “talk” to people.
King seemed as if he was born with a guitar in his hands, as his fingers roamed its fretboard with a masterful familiarity that invoked voice-like tones from his amplifier. Yearning to play the guitar from a young age, B.B., a name he acquired later in life when living in Memphis, Tennessee said his inspiration came from his pastor.
“I wanted to be like him. … I wanted to be just like him. People used to tell me when I was younger that I played a lot like him,” King said in a 2013 PBS interview.
The legendary blues man entered the music industry as a disc jockey in Memphis, after serving his country during WWII. It was here he earned the initials B.B. from the shortened “Beale Street Blues Boy” as his style of “pickin” transcended music genres, combining “teary eyed” Delta Blues with the soon-to-be recognized Rock & Roll to form a blues style music that “set the bar” for decades to come.
The self-taught King would go on to become known as the “King of the Blues” and also became well-known for naming every single guitar he ever owned, including his most famous guitar “Lucille”, a Gibson ES-355. Lucille was born after an incident in 1949, at a dance hall in Twist, Arkansas where a late night fire had broke out after a fight between two men arguing over a woman named Lucille. King, realizing he had left his $30 Gibson guitar inside, rushed back in to save it, and the famous guitar was born.
In 1969, the blues master released one of his biggest hits, “The Thrill is Gone”, one of the songs on the album “Completely Well”. It went on to hit number 3 on the 1970 Billboard Best Selling Soul Singles chart and number 15 on the Hot 100, later going on to win him a Grammy as well.
This amazing man collaborated with some of the music industries greatest musicians and groups, including Eric Clapton, U2, Johnnie Lee Hooker, Daryl Hall and Carole King. He reportedly has performed over 15,000 times during his lifetime.
“I look at an audience like meeting my in-laws for the first time,” he stated in a 1986 PBS interview. “You want to be yourself, but you still want to be someone they like. When I go out on stage each night, I try my best to out guess my audience and I like to feel in most cases like I’m a big guy with long, rubber arms that I can reach around my audience and swing and sway with them.”
King was more than just playing music though, starting his first club, B.B. King’s Blues Club in 1991 on Beale Street in Memphis, the same town that earned him his nickname. Others clubs have since opened in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville as well as many other locations.
Married twice in his life, to Martha Lee Denton and Sue Carol Hall, both ending before the 70s, he is survived by his 11 living children.
This legend of a man who was very outspoken in regards to his Type II diabetes, was one of the most iconic spokespersons to bring about awareness of this disease that affects at least 1 in 10 adults in our country.
B.B. King will be remembered for many reasons, but his unique style of playing and the music he helped give birth to, will always remain at the top of that list. Many current day musicians have emulated his style, incorporating some of the many blues riffs he created into their own style of music. Thankfully, his legacy will be carried on into the future through the creativity and expertise he lent to the industry throughout the last seven decades as well as the impact his abilities created through the inspiration of future generations of musicians across the world.
This last video is from a concert performed at Sing Sing Prison in 1972, and self-described by King as the “best performance of his life”. What writer could leave out the video this master guitarist felt was his greatest performance? Not this one…
Thanks B.B. for all the contributions you made to the industry and the inspiration you have passed on to future generations. Your presence in this world was felt by many, and the lack of it, will be missed by many as well.