B.B. King Dies at 89

The “King of the Blues” performed an estimated 15,000 shows, influenced generations

B.B. King
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Herbie Hancock, B.B. King and U2's Bono; Oct. 26, 2008, Los Angeles
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B.B. King, the undisputed “King of the Blues” for more than six decades, died May 14, at his Las Vegas home. The cause of death was a series of small strokes attributable to his battle with type 2 diabetes; King had been in hospice care since last month. King, who was 89, still maintained an active touring schedule into late last year.

King brought electric blues guitar-he long ago nicknamed his ever-present Gibson hollow-body guitars Lucille-into the mainstream, his dynamic single-note, fat-toned, vibrato-heavy style of playing embraced by rock musicians as well as fellow bluesmen. Describing King to Rolling Stone, ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons said, “There was a turning point, around the time of [the 1965 album] Live at the Regal, when his sound took on a personality that is untampered-with today, this roundish tone, where the front pickup is out of phase with the rear pickup. And B.B. still plays a Gibson amplifier that is long out of production. His sound comes from that combination. It’s just B.B.”

Beside his guitar work, King was a protean vocalist, alternately seductive, gruff and soulful. Often utilizing voice-and-guitar call-and-response, he engaged audiences wholly, first on the so-called chitlin’ circuit of the South and then, as his legend spread and throughout the remainder of his career, for audiences of all kinds. He played for presidents, at rock and jazz festivals, and in every great music room in the world, averaging up to 300 dates annually until recent years.

At his commercial peak, from the late ’50s into the ’70s, B.B. King was one of few bona fide blues artists whose recordings regularly crossed over into the pop charts. He placed a total of 36 singles onto Billboard‘s Top Pop Singles chart, beginning in1957 with “Be Careful With a Fool” on the RPM label through 1989’s “When Love Comes to Town,” a collaboration with U2. His 1969-70 release “The Thrill is Gone,” on BluesWay, became his best-seller and his signature, reaching number 15. On the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart, King appeared 28 times, peaking at number 3 in 2000 with Riding With the King, a collaborative album with disciple Eric Clapton. King was nominated for 30 Grammy awards, winning 15 times. He also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts.

Riley B. King was born Sept. 16, 1925 on a cotton plantation between Indianola and Itta Bena, Miss., and worked those plantations in his youth. Raised by a grandmother, King sang gospel in church, first picking up a guitar at age 12. He received his first major break came in 1948 when he performed on bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM in West Memphis, leading to a regular performing spot at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis. A 10-minute spot on Memphis radio station WDIA proved popular enough for the station to expand it. There he became known as the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” later shortened to B.B.

His love of the music of T-Bone Walker convinced King to play electric guitar and in 1949 he released his first single, “Miss Martha King,” on the Bullet label. He signed to RPM Records that same year and scored his first national number one single on the R&B charts for that label, “3 O’Clock Blues,” in 1951. He quickly became a star of the blues circuit, performing to ecstatic audiences at juke joints and theaters alike, and selling records briskly, among them “You Upset Me Baby,” “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Sweet Little Angel,” all of which became staples of his live shows.

King signed to ABC-Paramount Records in 1962 and in November 1964 recorded Live at the Regal at Chicago’s Regal Theater. Considered one of the greatest live albums of all time-female audience members can be heard shrieking with delight as he launched into several songs-it sparked King’s popularity among rock audiences (particularly aspiring guitarists) and has since been placed into the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

By the late ’60s, King was a regular at rock venues such as the Fillmores and also at rock, folk and jazz festivals. The Rolling Stones chose him to open their 1969 tour and King was one of the only black blues artists to appear on national TV programs such as The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show.

King’s popularity continued unabated for the rest of his life. Although his record sales diminished-two collaborations with fellow bluesman Bobby “Blue” Bland did well in the ’70s-his concerts routinely sold out. He staged a “farewell” tour in 2006 but, although he no longer maintained the hectic pace of his earlier years, he didn’t actually stop until he was physically unable to keep going.

King also lent his name to a group of music clubs, first in Memphis and later in Los Angeles, New York and Connecticut.

B.B. King-The Life of Riley, a documentary film by Jon Brewer, opened in 2014.

King’s final performances came last October, bringing to a close a remarkable career that saw him performing an estimated 15,000 concerts, from the roadhouses of the South to the White House and the Vatican.