FILE - In this April 21, 1980 file photo, B.B. King, left, and an accompanist perform during the opening of the 1980 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. King died Thursday, May 14, 2015, peacefully in his sleep at his Las Vegas home at age 89, his lawyer said. (AP Photo, File) (AP)

"Blues can never die": B.B. King reigned but music lives on

The legendary Mississippi bluesman, 89, died last night in Las Vegas


Ken Ritter
May 15, 2015 4:43PM (UTC)

King enjoyed acclaim and considerable commercial success, acting the gentleman onstage and off. The blues was born of despair, but King worked in many moods, and he encouraged black youngsters in particular to make positive choices.

"Most of the time when people say blues, it's pretty negative," King told a Houston audience in February 1992. "But I'm here to tell you, blues is a label that people put on a music that was started by black people, and you can choose between the negative and the positive."

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King was named the third greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone magazine (after Hendrix and Duane Allman, who died in their 20s, an age when King was just getting started). He won 15 Grammys and sold more than 40 million records worldwide, a remarkable number for blues. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His album "Live at the Regal" was declared a historic sound and permanently preserved in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.

His playing style influenced performers from Otis Rush and Buddy Guy to Clapton, Hendrix, John Mayall and Mike Bloomfield.

Musicians even named a section of the guitar's neck after their blues idol, dubbing it the "B.B. box." Usually located from the 10th to 12th frets, depending on the key of the song, it's where King twisted and scorched many of his signature guitar licks.

"Mr. King's electric guitar can sing simply, embroider and drag out unresolved harmonic tensions to delicious extremes," The New York Times wrote in a review of a King appearance in June 1992. "It shrinks and swells with the precision of the human voice."

Among his Grammys: best traditional blues album: "A Christmas Celebration of Hope," and best pop instrumental performance for "Auld Lang Syne" in 2003; best male rhythm 'n' blues performance in 1971 for his "The Thrill Is Gone"; best ethnic or traditional recording in 1982 for the album "There Must Be a Better World Somewhere." A collaboration with Clapton, "Riding With the King," won a Grammy in 2001 for best traditional blues recording.

Riley B. King was born Sept. 16, 1925, on a tenant farm near Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta. His parents separated when he was 4, and his mother took him to the even smaller town of Kilmichael. She died when he was 9, and when his grandmother died as well, he lived alone in her primitive cabin, raising cotton to work off debts.

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"I was a regular hand when I was 7. I picked cotton. I drove tractors. Children grew up not thinking that this is what they must do. We thought this was the thing to do to help your family," King said.

His father eventually found him and took him back to Indianola. When the weather was bad and King couldn't work the fields, he walked 10 miles to a one-room school. He quit in the 10th grade.

A preacher uncle taught him the guitar, and King didn't play and sing blues in earnest until he was away from his religious household, in basic training with the Army during World War II. He listened to and was influenced by both blues and jazz players: T. Bone Walker, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian.

His first break came with gospel — singing lead and playing guitar with the Famous St. John's Gospel Singers on Sunday afternoons from the studio of WGRM radio in Greenwood, Mississippi.

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But he soon split for Memphis, Tennessee, where his career took off after Sonny Boy Williamson let him play a song on WKEM.

By 1948, King earned a daily spot on WDIA, the first radio station in America to program entirely by African-Americans for African-Americans, as "the Pepticon Boy," pitching the alcoholic tonic between his live blues songs.

Until then, he had been known as Riley King. He needed a better nickname. The station manager dubbed him the Beale Street Blues Boy, because he had played for tips in a Beale Street park. Soon, it was B.B., and it stuck.

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Initial success came with his third recording, of "Three O'Clock Blues" in 1950. He hit the road, and rarely paused thereafter.

King made his first European tour in 1968, played in 14 cities with the Rolling Stones in 1969, and made TV appearances, from "Sesame Street" to "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." In 1989, he appeared in "Rattle and Hum," a film about U2, and toured with that band.

Music brought him from Mississippi's dirt roads to black-tie meetings with world leaders. He gave a guitar to Pope John Paul II, and had President Barack Obama singing to his "Sweet Home Chicago."

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In 2005, the Mississippi House and Senate declared Feb. 15 to be B.B. King Day. The blues great said he had never set foot in the Mississippi Capitol until then. He wiped away tears, and described it as his most proud moment.

"I tell you I was in Heaven. I was so happy that I cried. I don't do that often in public, but the water just came. I couldn't help it," King said later.

King lived in Las Vegas, but Mississippi was his home.

In the early 1980s, King donated about 8,000 recordings — mostly 33, 45 and 78 rpm records, but also some Edison wax cylinders — to the University of Mississippi, launching a blues archive that researchers still use today. He also supported the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, a $10 million, 18,000-square-foot structure, built around the cotton gin where King once worked.

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"I want to be able to share with the world the blues as I know it — that kind of music — and talk about the Delta and Mississippi as a whole," he said at the center's groundbreaking in 2005.

The museum not only holds his personal papers, but hosts music camps and community events focused on health challenges including diabetes, which King suffered from for years. At his urging, Mississippi teenagers work as docents, not only at the center but also at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

"He's the only man I know, of his talent level, whose talent is exceeded by his humility," said Allen Hammons, a museum board member.

In a June 2006 interview, King said there are plenty of great musicians now performing who will keep the blues alive.

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"I could name so many that I think that you won't miss me at all when I'm not around. You'll maybe miss seeing my face, but the music will go on," he said.

Associated Press writers Hillel Italie in New York and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi contributed to this report.


Ken Ritter

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