B.B. King (140290)

B.B. King, one of the greatest interpreters of the blues and to a generation of musicians one of the industry’s finest guitarists, died May 14 asleep at his home in Las Vegas. He was 89.

King had battled Type 2 diabetes for about two decades, although at press time the cause of death had not been revealed.

During his 70 years as a performer, King influenced practically every blues and rock ’n roll guitarist of note, including George Harrison, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Carl Wilson, Ernie Isley, Johnny Winter, Jimmy Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt, Eddie Van Halen, Robert Cray, Lenny Kravitz and Keb Mo.

King wrote in his 1996 autobiography, “Blues All Around Me,” that “My memory says that from ages 10 until 13, I lived alone.” As a teenager, a girl he loved was crushed to death in a highway accident. Work, he said, took his mind off his pain. Among his most memorable song lyrics was: “The only person who loved me was my mother. And I think even she was jivin’.”

In 1948 after moving to Memphis, Tenn., King met the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson—whom he had seen perform in Indianola, Miss.—who let him do a song on his radio program. While in Memphis, King was exposed to brilliant musicianship on Beale Street and met singer Rufus Thomas, who was also a disc jockey for radio station WDIA. Thomas reportedly played a significant role in giving King’s songs early radio play.

King was known for his Gibson electric guitar, “Lucille,” on his hip, his voice shifting effortlessly between smooth crooning and a grief-stricken growl. Later years found King sitting on a stool as diabetes caused painful swelling in his lower legs and feet.

His earliest hits are collected on “Singin’ The Blues” issued in 1957. King’s first hit was “3 O’clock Blues” in 1952 which reached the top spot on Billboard’s R&B charts. He soon began to tour beyond the South and never really stopped until about a year before his death. In 1956, King and his band did 342 one-night-stands, and for four decades they averaged 330 shows a year.

King’s work was re-energized with rock ’n roll audiences of the 1960s who were introduced to his work by the likes of Americana Blues musicians Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield and Johnny Winter. In 1971, King received his first Grammy Award for his cover of the Roy Hawkins tune “The Thrill is Gone” which would become his signature tune for the remainder of his career. In later years, King would appear on numerous television shows such as “Sanford and Son,” “The Cosby Show,” “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “Sesame Street.” He also portrayed a used car salesman in the movie “Blues Brothers 2000.”

Despite international acclaim, ample financial rewards and advancing age, King continued to make great music, including his 1998 release “Blues on the Bayou,” “Let The Good Times Roll” (a tribute to Louis Jordan), and at age 82, he released “One Kind Favor” produced by T Bone Burnett. He also made a video with Eric Clapton called “Ridin’ With The King” and performed with U2 on “When Loves Comes to Town.”

Born Riley B. King on Sept. 16, 1925 in the tiny Mississippi town of Itta Bena, he adopted the moniker B.B. “Blues Boy” around the time he released his first single and was influenced early on by the jump blues and swing sounds of Louis Jordan and Count Basie. In listening to these and many other African American artists on the radio, in person and on film, King learned to play the guitar at age 15. King was also influenced greatly by Texas Blues masters Lowell Fulson and T-Bone Walker. Other musical influences included Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Son House and Lonnie Johnson.

King was married twice. It has been reported that he had 15 children and as many as 50 grandchildren. King was also a certified FAA pilot, receiving his license in 1963. He stopped flying at the age of 70. In later years, King served as high-profile spokesman for the fight against Type 2 diabetes, appearing in a number of commercials for the diabetes management product One Touch Ultra.