B.B. King, the guitarist who rose from Mississippi’s cotton fields to become one of the leading lights of the electric blues, died Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 89.
News of King’s death was reported to the Associated Press by his attorney, Brent Bryson.
King was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation near Indianola, Mississippi. His earliest musical experience was singing gospel in church.
“All of my relatives were very religious,” he said. “I was ashamed to sing anything other than spirituals around the home. I’d probably get whipped.”
Around the age of 12, he got his first guitar, either buying it himself for $15 or as a gift from his mother’s first cousin, Bukka White, the Delta blues singer and guitarist. King was mostly self-taught on the instrument, picking up knowledge through White and by listening to the radio.
By the end of the Thirties, King’s father was gone and his mother was dead. King was on his own, sharecropping an acre of cotton. One day while on his lunch break, he heard the music of Mississippi Delta blues musicians broadcast on the King Biscuit Time radio show, on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. He suddenly knew he wanted to make a living as a guitarist.
King eventually went to West Memphis, Arkansas, across the river from Memphis, Tennessee, to seek out Sonny Boy Williamson, who he’d heard on King Biscuit Time. Williamson had his own radio program on KWEM and gave King a spot playing one song on the show. Williamson was sufficiently impressed with his talent to offer King a gig.
“That night he had two jobs to play,” King recalled. “One of them he didn’t want because it didn’t pay much money. So he called the lady and asked did she hear the program. She said yes.
“He said, ‘Well, how did you like the boy singing?’ She said, ‘I liked him very much.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m thinking about letting him play for me tonight at your place and I’ll see you next week,’ and she said fine.
“They paid me 12 dollars. Twelve American dollars! That’s a lot of bread for a guy that’s been making 75 cents a day picking cotton.”
It was around this time, in 1942, that King heard T-Bone Walker.
“That was the first electric guitar I ever heard,” he recalled. “He was playing dominant ninth chords, which was something I’d never heard about.”
Hearing Walker also convinced King that he had to make the switch from acoustic to electric. “Once I’d heard him for the first time, I knew I’d have to have [an electric guitar] myself,” he said. “Had to have one, short of stealing!”
Later, King became familiar with jazz through Benny Goodman’s band, where he heard Charlie Christian. “Oh boy, did that do it,” he said. “Charlie Christian was a master on diminished chords.” Later, he was introduced to the music of Django Reinhardt. “And I fell in love with him. That really blew my mind.”
In addition to Walker, Christian and Reinhardt, King loved the sound of slide, which he was introduced to through Bukka White. “He used to play with a slide on his finger, and I could never get that,” King said. “I’ve got stupid fingers. They just wouldn’t work.”
To approximate the sound, he began developing a wild finger vibrato. “In order to get somewhat the sound he had, I would trill my hand,” he said. “And I think over the years I’ve done pretty good with it. I could just keep trilling it and sustain the sound.”
Working in the Memphis area, King quickly began to develop an audience, playing regular engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis and a 10-minute spot on the Memphis radio station WDIA. In an early indication of what was to come, King’s radio spot became so popular that it was expended into a show, The Sepia Swing Club.
With his first taste of fame on the radio and stage, King adopted a new name: Beale Street Blues Boy, which was shortened to Blues Boy and, eventually, to just B.B.
By 1949, King was recording for Bullet Records, which released his first song, “Miss Martha King.” The song didn’t chart well, but he soon began recording under contract to the L.A.-based RPM Records, where several of his early recordings were produced by Sam Phillips, who would later found Sun Records. In December 1951, he had his first hit when his song “Three O’Clock Blues” went to Number One and remained there for 15 weeks.
He soon went on the road and stayed there for most of his life. King and his band performed all over the country, in theaters as well as small clubs and juke joints. It was here that one of the great legends in King’s life arose.
In the winter of 1949, King was performing a show in Twist, Arkansas. During the show, two men got into a fight and knocked over a lit kerosene heater, causing an inferno. (In another telling of the story, a man and his wife were fighting when he knocked her into a heating tank, making it fall over and spill its flaming contents.) King evacuated with the crowd but, once outside, quickly realized he’d left his guitar inside. Risking his life, he ran back into the building to retrieve it.
When later he learned the two men had been fighting over a woman named Lucille, King named his guitar—and every other guitar he came to own—Lucille as a reminder not to fight over women or run into burning buildings. He even wrote a song called “Lucille,” in which he talks about the guitar and how it got its name.
King’s reputation as a performer continued to grow. In 1956, he reportedly played 342 one-night stands. His appetite for performing never waned—he was typically booked for 200 to 300 shows a year afterward, as his fame took him to concert halls and casinos.
By the Sixties, blues was enjoying a resurgence through acts like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who were among the group’s that introduced the genre to young white audience. When King was booked at the Fillmore West in San Francisco in 1968, he was surprised to see “long-haired white people” standing in line outside. “I think they booked us in the wrong place,” he told his road manager.
At the sold-out show, Fillmore promoter Bill Graham introduced him to the crowd, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the chairman of the board, B. B. King.”
For King, the moment marked the start of his commercial success.”Everybody stood up, and I cried,” he said. “That was the beginning of it.”
His fame among young rock audiences continued to grow in 1969 when he appeared as an opening act on the Rolling Stones’ 1969 American Tour.
Soon after, King had his breakthrough with “The Thrill Is Gone.” Recorded in 1969 for his album Completely Well, the song was released as a single at the end of the year and became a major hit. Its polished production and use of strings were a major departure from King’s previous material, and it became one of his signature pieces.
The song itself had been based on a similarly titled Broadway tune from 1931 that had been a hit for singer Rudy Vallee. King gave it his own spin, turning it into a moody minor-key blues.
“I would have to take any song or any piece of music and try to put my own thing to it,” he said. “Then I feel comfortable.”
King’s highly visible career continued to flourish over the next decades. He was introduced to yet another generation in 1988 when he and U2 released the single “When Love Comes to Town,” from the group’s Rattle and Hum album. In 1998, he appeared in The Blues Brothers 2000, along with Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Koko Taylor and Bo Diddley, as the lead singer of the Louisiana Gator Boys.
Clapton, a longtime friend and fellow performer of King’s, teamed up with the blues guitarist in 2000 for Riding with the King. Clapton had long considered King a mentor, and King was himself enamored of Clapton. The two had first performed together at Cafe Au Go Go in New York City in 1967, but they didn’t collaborate until 1997, when they worked together on “Rock Me Baby” for King’s album Deuces Wild.
King played a number of guitars early in his career, including a Fender Telecaster, but he is best known for playing a Gibson ES-355. King’s Lucille was the basis for his 1981 signature model ES-355, with stereo wiring and a Varitone circuit, both of which were options on the ES-355. It also had a maple neck, rather than mahogany, the name Lucille on the headstock and no f-holes.
It was with Lucille that he made his career and established himself as one of the most beloved and celebrated blues guitarists. In 1990, King was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George H.W. Bush, and in 2006, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. In February 2012, he found himself with yet another U.S. president, Barack Obama, when King played at the In Performance at the White House event along with Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck and Derek Trucks.
Although he was diagnosed with Type II diabetes in his late sixties, King didn’t let the disease slow him down. He continued to perform regularly throughout his eighties until October 2014, when he was forced to cancel eight shows due to dehydration and exhaustion. He was hospitalized for dehydration again in early April of this year.
King was admitted to a Las Vegas hospital on Thursday, April 30, after suffering a heart attack. He had been in home hospice care since returning home shortly afterward.
Amazingly, he continued to perform almost until the end of his life. His musical journey began with a love of the blues, a longing that touched him deeply and kept him going strong into his final year.
“I’m still searching even today for a sound,” King said in 1972. “I’m satisfied at times with the sound of my guitar, with the way it seems to sing a bit. It is a little sound there that I hear, but I can’t tell anybody about it. I don’t know how. But if I ever get it, I’ll know.”