BB King, with his ever-present guitar Lucille, rose from sharecropper poverty in deep Mississippi to become the face of the American blues worldwide and an inspiration for generations of rock guitarists everywhere.
“The King of the Blues,” as he was universally known, led a life of non-stop touring, electrifying audiences in some 100 countries with his biting guitar licks and soulful songs of love and angst such as The Thrill is Gone and How Blue Can You Get.
King died on Thursday at age 89 in Las Vegas, which was the blues legend’s primary residence amid years of incessant travel, his daughter said.
King kept up a gruelling touring schedule even in his 80s, despite living with Type II diabetes for more than two decades.
But King’s fans noticed last year that some performances were increasingly erratic, and he cancelled remaining dates in October after falling ill at a show in Chicago.
A consummate entertainer with a husky baritone who made a successful crossover from traditional African American audiences to rock and pop fans, King for decades gave upwards of 300 concerts a year, racking up 15 Grammy awards.
Almost as well known was his “woman,” the Gibson ES-355 guitar he named Lucille, after a woman who was the focus of a fight between two men in Arkansas that led to a house being set on fire and King nearly being burned to death as he tried to rescue his instrument.
Through Lucille he delivered an unmistakable mix of slow but sharp bites and long, moaning bends that influenced other guitar legends such as Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him the third-greatest guitar legend after Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman and one ahead of Clapton. But his influence probably eclipsed all of theirs.
Riley B King was born September 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi. His father left home when he was five, he was working in the fields at seven, and his mother died when he was nine.
A kindly white plantation owner bought him a red guitar when he was 12, and, as he moved up to driving a tractor on the farm, he spent his spare time singing in local gospel groups and on street corners for spare change.
Eventually he made his way north to Memphis, Tennessee, a music capital which was to become his longtime base. Blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson put King on his radio show, where he made such an impression the young musician soon got his own program, Sepia Swing Club.
On the radio he took the nickname Beal Street Blues Boy, then shortened it to Blues Boy King, and then BB King.
In 1949 he made his first six singles, and two years later hit paydirt with Three O’Clock Blues. It held the number one slot on the national rhythm and blues charts for 15 weeks.
He developed his distinct style in the 1950s as he toured incessantly with his band. His guitar playing focused not on speedy riffs, not on sweeping chords, but well-chosen, sharp single notes and long, aching bends.
He never took up the slide guitar like most Delta bluesmen, but substituted with a vibrato from his left hand on the neck that rounded out his unique sound.
By the early 1960s, however, King’s music lost its popularity with the rise of more slick R&B styles. But within a few years he would have a new audience: young, white and hip.
In 1968 he was invited to perform at San Francisco’s Fillmore West, the mecca of hippie folk and acid rock.
“It was the first time I ever got a standing ovation in my life. It was so touching that I cried. Big grown man crying,” he later said.
The same year British guitar star Clapton told Rolling Stone magazine: “I still don’t think there is a better blues guitarist in the world than BB King.”
In 1969 the Rolling Stones invited King to open 18 US concerts, and his new career was launched.
In 1970 he had his biggest-ever hit, the slow-moving, minor-key The Thrill is Gone, which took him for the first time onto the well-monied pop charts. It became one of his two signature songs.
The other was the show-stopping How Blue Can You Get. Knowing audiences would roar at the first words: “I’ve been downhearted baby/ever since the day we met.”
King was married and divorced twice, and liked to say he had 15 children by 15 women, but was very closed-mouth about any details. People magazine reported he had eight children. At least two of his children worked with his band, one as a backup singer.
King made his 42nd and last studio album in 2008, One Kind Favor, that also brought him his final Grammy.