B.B. King, Blues Legend, Dies at 89
King believed the blues comprised a world of emotions—joy, heartache, sensuality and tragedy, among them
By Jim Fusilli in the Wall Street Journal
Riley B. King—better known as B.B.—was the world’s most famous blues musician. If his celebrity rose from his tireless ambassadorship for the art form, it was built on his refined skill as a fiery performer and a stinging, supremely tasteful electric guitarist. Mr. King died peacefully in his sleep at 9:40 p.m. Thursday in Las Vegas, his attorney, Brent Bryson, told the Associated Press. He was 89.
Most fans of popular music have known B.B. King their entire lives, and to a degree that familiarity distorts his reputation. When Mr. King recorded his first hit singles in the early 1950s, he wasn’t yet the stately icon in a tuxedo who traveled to world capitals and the White House to promote a form of American music that grew from the Mississippi Delta where he was raised. Six decades ago, Mr. King was a determined, hard-touring musician who funded his own revue to play the blues, R&B and swing. With a supple wall of horns and a sparkling rhythm section behind him, Mr. King provided a formidable focal point: his Gibson guitar—which he dubbed Lucille—on his hip, his voice shifting effortlessly between butter-smooth crooning and a grief-stricken growl.
Mr. King’s early singles are collected on “Singin’ the Blues,” issued in 1957, and they reveal his ability to assimilate many styles into a brew that became his own. He admired the jump blues and swinging R&B of Louis Jordan and Count Basie (especially when the latter had vocalist Jimmy Rushing out front), and specialized in the kind of smoldering down-tempo blues that were electrified kin to the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, who were among his favorites. The influence of Texas blues masters Lowell Fulson and T-Bone Walker resonates through Mr. King’s entire catalog. But “Singin’ the Blues” and other early releases also reveal Mr. King’s expert distillation of electric-guitar styles—if he grew parsimonious in his soloing in later years, back then he could issue biting notes in a furious flurry if the mood called for it—as well as his band’s meticulous presentation and his winning personality. Mr. King believed the blues comprised a world of emotions—joy, heartache, sensuality and tragedy, among them—and he was at ease in conveying every one.
Born Sept. 16, 1925, near Itta Bena, Miss., Mr. King was raised in poverty on a plantation where he picked cotton. He lost his mother and grandmother when he was young. “My memory says that from ages ten until thirteen, I lived alone,” he reported in his 1996 autobiography, “Blues All Around Me.” Friends mocked him for his stutter that he seemed to have inherited from his great-grandfather, a former slave. As a teenager, a girl he loved was crushed to death in a highway accident. Work, he said, took his mind off his pain.
Inspired by music he heard on the radio, in films and in person—Bukka White was his mother’s cousin—Mr. King learned to play guitar, joined a gospel group and, at age 15, advanced his musical education by observing touring acts in Indianola, Miss., where he took to busking on street corners. After serving stateside in the Army during World War II, he made his way to Memphis, Tenn., where he caught up with White and was exposed to brilliant musicianship on Beale Street. In 1948, he convinced Sonny Boy Williamson, whom he had seen perform in Indianola, to let him do a song on his radio program. It led to gigs and a radio show of his own. He continued to pick cotton, racing to Arkansas for the grueling work.
As his reputation spread, Mr. King toured the region and in December 1949, he was playing a club in Twist, Ark., when a fight broke out and a kerosene-filled pail spilled over, setting the venue ablaze. Dodging flames and falling beams, Mr. King raced to retrieve his $30 guitar. Afterward, he overheard a man say the brawl had been over a woman named Lucille—which is how Mr. King came to name his big-bodied guitars.
In 1949, Mr. King was playing at a club in Twist, Ark., when a fight broke out over a woman named Lucille. Mr. King later came to name his big-bodied guitars “Lucille”. In 1980, guitar maker Gibson launched the B.B. King “Lucille” model. AFP/Getty Images
Mr. King died peacefully in his sleep Thursday at 9:40 p.m. in Las Vegas, his attorney, Brent Bryson, said. He was 89. Getty Images
After his “3 O’Clock Blues” reached the top slot on Billboard’s R&B charts in 1952, Mr. King began to perform beyond the South and success followed. His band toured relentlessly: In ’56, Mr. King and his group did 342 one-night stands, and for four decades they averaged 330 shows a year. Thanks to these many performances we now have a bevy of live albums, including “Live at the Regal,” cut with a small combo and released in 1965, and two collections with Bobby Blue Bland, with whom he toured when the blues and R&B market declined as a result of the rise of soul and pop.
Mr. King’s career was re-energized when rock audiences were introduced to his work by the likes of American blues musicians Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield and Johnny Winter and British guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Keith Richards, among others. New management booked him into rock venues; Mr. King said the first time he received a standing ovation before he played was at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium before an audience of hippies. In 1971, he received his first Grammy Award for his polished cover of Roy Hawkins’s 1951 hit, “The Thrill is Gone,” his signature song for the remainder of his career.
Mr. King continued to find new fans among subsequent generations at home and abroad, including the Soviet Union, which he toured in 1979. He appeared as himself in TV dramas and comedies, cut “When Love Comes to Town” in Memphis with U2, and by the time the ’90s arrived saw his name become a brand affixed to a string of nightclubs and a range of products. Despite international acclaim, ample financial rewards and advancing years, Mr. King continued to make great music, including his 1998 release “Blues on the Bayou,” made in the studio with his touring band; “Let the Good Times Roll,” a tribute to Jordan recorded a year later with an all-star jazz lineup; and “One Kind Favor,” which features compositions by Jefferson, Johnson and Walker, among his other heroes. Mr. King was 82 when “One Kind Favor” was released in 2008 with T Bone Burnett producing.
With his passion for art and showmanship, and his willingness to remain true to his vision despite shifting trends, Mr. King served the best of the blues to several generations. In turn, those fans and others who follow will continue to honor him as they savor the music he loved.
—Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic.