Mississippi Delta native and legendary blues musician B.B. King died in his sleep Thursday night at his home in Las Vegas. The 89 year-old “king of the blues” had long suffered from diabetes, and had recently been in home hospice care after falling ill in April.
Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925 in Itta Bena, MS, the son of sharecroppers Albert and Nora Ella King. His life-long musical journey began at a young age singing in the local Baptist church choir. Shortly thereafter, he started playing guitar with gospel groups at churches and radio stations in the area.
It wasn’t long before King made his way to Memphis, where he began to develop a real radio audience. Initially working as a singer and disc jockey for the Memphis radio station WDIA, he was affectionately called the “Beale Street Blues Boy”. Later the nickname was shortened to “Blues Boy”, but ultimately he was known simply as “B.B.”
King’s career as a bluesman began taking off in 1949 when he signed a record contract with the Los Angeles-based RPM Records, and he started touring the United States to support his records.
It was during one of these early tours that an event shaped part of his musical history. One night he was playing a show at a small club in Arkansas when a fight broke out between two men. During the ruckus, a fire somehow started and everyone had to be evacuated. King, however, went back into the burning building to save his beloved guitar. He later found out that the two men had been fighting over a woman named Lucille. King subsequently named ahis Gibson guitar “Lucille”, which would become a blues icon in itself.
His music exploded on the charts in the 1950’s, with his first Billboard R&B number one, “3 O’Clock Blues” coming in 1952. Countless hits followed, including “Sneakin’ Around”, “Every Day I Have the Blues”, “Bad Luck”, “Woke Up This Morning”, “Sweet Little Angel”, “Whole Lotta Love” and many more. In 1970, King won a Grammy for his cover of the Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell tune, “The Thrill Is Gone”.
King was also famous for his feverish touring schedule, averaging more than 200 concerts per year well into his 70s.In 1956, he reportedly played a whopping 342 shows. He performed tirelessly until 2014 when he fell ill in October at a show at the House of Blues in Chicago. The remaining portion of his tour was cancelled, a rarity for the blues road warrior.
King’s list of awards and accolades is a mile long. He’s been awarded a total of 15 Grammy Awards, plus a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. King has been honored with the National Medal of Arts, National Heritage Fellowship, Kennedy Center Honors, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and honorary doctorate degrees from Berklee College of Music, Yale, and Brown University. In 1980 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, followed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Over the years, B.B. King brought the blues from the obscurity of the cotton fields to the forefront of the mainstream music scene. Countless guitarists and musicians cite King as being a major inspiration, many of whom took to the internet and social media to show their support and gratitude for the “King” after he died Thursday night. Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Peter Frampton, Mick Jagger, Derek Trucks, Gladys Knight, Lenny Kravitz, Bryan Adams, Richie Sambora, and many others paid personal tributes to their blues hero.
The King may be gone, but the thrill will live on in his legacy.