B.B. King sang the blues as a child to escape abject poverty, and the blues made B.B. King one of the most influential and respected guitarists in American music history.
King, 89, died in his sleep late Thursday in Las Vegas, where he had been in hospice care since early this month. King suffered Type II diabetes and had been in poor health for several months. He canceled his final tour after falling ill following a show in Chicago on Oct. 3. His final show in Kansas City was two days earlier, on Oct. 1 at the Midland theater.
King’s influence was deep and vast, and news of his death prompted words of grief and appreciation from the scores of musicians he inspired. On a short video he released via social media, Eric Clapton said, “I want to thank him for all the inspiration and encouragement he gave me as a player over the years and for the friendship we enjoyed. … He was a beacon for all of us who loved this kind of music.”
Riley B. King was born to Mississippi sharecroppers on Sept. 16, 1925, working the cotton fields full-time as early as age 7. After the death of his mother, he spent his dirt-poor boyhood in the care of his maternal grandmother, then after she died, alone until he was reunited briefly with the father who’d abandoned him.
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Music came into his life first through the church, then through the radio, where he was introduced to the blues of the Delta region. He bought his first guitar around the age of 12 and taught himself to play. In the late 1940s, he moved to Memphis, where he played on the street for tips.
He got his first big break performing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show. That led to King getting a radio show of his own, under the name Beale Street Blues Boy, which became Blues Boy King, then B.B. King. He soon started recording in Memphis. His first hit came in 1950 with “Three O’Clock Blues,” which hit No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1951.
King would go on to record 42 studio albums, the most recent of which, “One Kind Favor,” produced by T-Bone Burnett, was released in August 2008. It won a Grammy award, his 15th, for best traditional blues album.
In addition to his Grammys, his list of honors and awards includes a Kennedy Center Honors, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a National Medal of Arts, a Polar Music Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and induction into the Blues and Rock and Roll halls of fame.
King became famous and revered for his own take on the blues, as a guitarist and vocalist, both of which influenced generations of musicians and brought the blues into the mainstream, where he became its first big star.
“He blended Delta traditions with post-war jump blues and soul to create a distinctive style of urban blues,” said Chuck Haddix, host of the radio program “Fish Fry” on Fridays and Saturdays on KCUR (89.3 FM).
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers said in a statement on Friday, “B.B. King influenced everyone in this band, and on a much wider spectrum, rock, blues and jazz. Every guitarist studied B.B.’s playing style, and singers of every genre studied his voice.”
In an interview with the Washington Post, blues historian Peter Guralnick addressed King’s most profound influence: on rock musicians, starting in the 1960s.
“One of the things that enabled B.B. to have such a profound effect on generations of rock-blues guitarists, from Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to the present day, was (his music’s) very accessibility — its emotional accessibility in the high-flying, single-string focus of his soloing, and its musical accessibility in the broad range of sources from which he drew,” he said. “He holds the same place in blues as Louis Armstrong did in jazz. He is an ambassador for the music.”
King was often the first to bring the blues into the homes of music fans, too.
“B.B. King introduced me to the blues,” Haddix said. “He became one of the most influential bluesman of all-time because of his broad appeal ranging from the African-American fan on the chitlin’ circuit to young rock ’n’ rollers. While many of his peers struggled for recognition, King became a household name and blues royalty.”
His death comes at a time when the blues are in the midst of a long decline commercially. Clapton addressed that in his message: “This music is almost a thing of the past now, and there aren’t many left to play it in the pure way that B.B. did.”
And that includes new generations of musicians delivering their own versions of the blues. On her Facebook page, Kansas City blues guitarist Samantha Fish, 25, wrote, “Thank you for the inspiration B.B. King! He touched my life and millions of others. Celebrate life, that was always the message I took from him. I’m thankful that we got him for as long as we did.”
At King’s final Kansas City show in October, the Kansas City duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear were the openers. Ward, 26, told The Star on Friday, “I feel pretty emotional in regards to B.B.’s passing. Not just because the world lost an iconic legend, but also because it was a personal honor to share the stage with that man.
“B.B. was first major artist we ever opened for, and it will always be recognized as a special moment. Although we never got to meet him personally, we’ll never forget his legacy or that amazing night at the Midland.”