RIP: B.B. King

Posted May 15, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

The last of the great bluesmen dies at the age of 89

The world acclaimed king of the blues and the last of the great bluesmen alive — B.B. King has passed away at the age of 89. Word of his passing was provided by his attorney, Brent Bryson. According to the Associated Press, King died peacefully in his sleep at 9:40 pm PDT Thursday at his Las Vegas home.

Born Riley B. King, the blues musician was born in rural Mississippi near Itta Bena in 1925. During his youth King moved around most parts of Mississippi until he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where his career was set in motion after appearing on Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM. He also became a disc jockey at WDIA, earning him the nickname Beale Street Blues Boy. The name was later shortened to Blues Boy, and initialed as B.B. He was inspired to play the blues after meeting T-Bone Walker and continued to make his rounds in Memphis playing for amateur talent shows, some hosted by Memphis disc jockey Rufus Thomas.

King started recording music in 1949 under the helm of Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, but caught his first big break of success with his cover of Lowell Fulson’s “3 O’Clock Blues,” a song that possessed a poorer sound quality than the earlier records Phillips produced. The song, released in 1952 and also featured Ike Turner on piano, became a radio favorite, rocketing all the way to number one on the R&B charts. King, mastering the 12-bar Blues, followed it up with a string of hits including “You Know I Love You,” “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Sweet Little Angel.” Hitting the road to support his singles, King quickly turned into a star on the “chillin” circuit and became a marquee attraction at the famed Apollo Theatre in New York.

His first album, Singin’ the Blues,  was released in 1956 on the Bihari brothers’ Crown label and possessed five chart-topping hits including the No. 1 R&B hit “You Upset Me, Baby.” King had developed a style that blended Walker’s signature distorted guitar style with the emotional pleading heard in his booming vocals. He remained on the Crown label until he hitched on to ABC-Paramount in 1963. Although King’s recording zenith rested in the 50s, he remained a viable presence in R&B and corniness to record with ABC until 1978. During that reign, King pulled off several Top 20 R&B hits including “I Want to Get Married,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “Peace of Mind” and his magnum opus “Rock Me Baby,” also a Top 40 hit. But King is probably best remembered for his 1969 recording of the Rick Darnell/Roy Hawkins blues number “The Thrill is Gone.” King and his anointed Gibson guitar (nicknamed Lucille) take turns at the verses, walking up sophisticated  levels of production blessed with complimentary strings and sexy electric keyboard action. The song, featured on the album Completely Well, earned King a Grammy award in 1970 and was even inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

King continued to record lavishly even in his twilight years. On a number of occasions, he teamed up with bluesman Bobby “Blue” Bland for a handful of well-received live albums. On his last LP on ABC, King was supported by the talented jazz fusion unit The Crusaders and pulled off a Top 20 hit with 1978’s Never Make a Move Too Soon.” King moved to MCA and recorded heavily into the ’80s and ’90s, including the all-star collaborative disc Deuces Wild, which featured duets with Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, D’Angelo, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. Riding With the King, a complete collaborative album with Eric Clapton, was certified 2x platinum in the US and even took home a Grammy. With blues falling out of the public eye, King remained focus on gigging. “I found that each time I went to a place I would get more fans,” King said in the book The B.B. King Treasures. “I started to get letters, and in that area people would by records. People thought I was making a lot of money because I was traveling a lot. That was the only way I could survive.”

B.B. King performing at Iron City, Birmingham, Ala. (Jan. 14, 2014)

Survive King did, until he was forced forced to cancel shows last October after falling ill and being diagnosed with dehydration and exhaustion. He was also diagnosed with diabetes over twenty years ago, and even made PSAs with American Idol season 9 finalist Crystal Bowersox creating awareness about the disease. King was the recipient of fifteen Grammy awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award, a National Medal of Arts, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Blues Hall of Fame.

Rolling Stone magazine ranked King at number 6 on its 2011 list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. It’s a honor that always stunned King when reflecting on how his music shaped other legends. “Some of my friends would tell me from time to time, Eric Clapton said this, or Jimi Hendrix said this,” King said during an interview with Joe Smith for PBS in 1986. “I spoke with John Lennon once after I had seen in, I believe it was Life magazine, where people were asking questions, “say, what is it you would like to do?” One of his things was to play guitar like B.B. King. That’s when I started to find that a lot of the young musicians had been listening to me. I didn’t know and, for the life of me, sometimes still wonder why.”

King’s legacy will certainly live on through his successful business ventures, which include the blues bar franchisees of B.B. King’s Blues Club. There are eight locations within the United States.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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