Blues Icon B. B. King Passes

Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin ©1977

B.B. King
Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin ©1977

Perhaps the best known and definitely the most influential bluesman ever, Riley B. King (we’ll get to the B.B. shortly) was born to sharecroppers in 1925 in Berclair, Mississippi, a crossroads encampment just outside the whistle-stop town of Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta. After the war, he traveled to Memphis, where he hooked up with his cousin, country bluesman Bukka White, and landed a job as a deejay on a local radio station where he fell under the spell of guitarists T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt as well as the jump blues of Louis Jordan and the big-band sounds of Count Basie. He soon became known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, which he later shortened to B. B. He released his first million-seller, the minor-key lament “Three O’ Clock Blues,” in 1951 for Modern/RPM Records and proceeded to cut hundreds of sides for the label over the following decade while touring constantly on the chitlin’ circuit. The turning point in his career came in February, 1967 when he was warmly embraced by the youthful white audience at a performance in San Francisco at Bill Graham’s fabled Fillmore Auditorium and began hearing his music played on the then burgeoning network of underground FM rock stations. King’s instantly recognizable, bent-note ridden and vibrato-laden guitar playing and singularly dynamic, wailing vocal style – a clever synthesis of the country blues and more urban tempos – engendered another string of hits, like “Don’t Answer The Door” and “The Thrill Is Gone” (his eventual signature song), that underscored a more modern, spontaneous approach to his material. Over four decades of constant worldwide touring followed for the King of the Blues and his trusty Gibson guitar, affectionately dubbed Lucille. He continued to take the stage until last October when he collapsed during a concert in Chicago due to exhaustion and dehydration. He died May 14, at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada of a series of small strokes attributed to type-2 diabetes. In addition to fifteen Grammy Awards, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and received the Songwriters Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990. In 2008, he became the only living blues artist with his own museum, in Indianola, Mississippi. He had fifteen biological and adopted children, eleven surviving.

Gary von Tersch

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