The last of the influential blues legends B.B. King has died.
Just two weeks ago, B.B., or Riley to use his real name, announced on his website that he had officially retired and was entering into hospice care in his home city of Las Vegas. B.B. has, for years, toured relentlessly and was still regularly performing over 100 shows a year right into old age. It cost him two marriages in the end.
He was born in September 1925 in Mississippi and after his mother left his father for another man he was brought up by his grandmother. As a kid he was made to work in cotton and corn fields where he milked 20 cows a day from 10 in the morning till 10 at night.
He joined a local gospel choir until he was 11 years old when he became fascinated by the guitar buying his first one a year later. In 1947 he got a job as a DJ on radio station WDIA where he also sang and within weeks earned the nickname Beale Street Blues Boy. That was soon shortened to Blues boy and then to just B.B.
Two years later he moved to Los Angeles and signed a record deal with RPM records and many of his first singles were produced by Sam Phillips who went on to launch Sun Records in Tennessee.
His first US hit, 3 O’Clock Blues, made the Billboard R&B chart at the end of 1951 and reached number one. He went on to have a further 74 R&B hits and became arguably the most influential guitarists of all time who, in the sixties and seventies, was embraced by rock ‘n’ roll fans alike. He influenced hundreds of budding guitarists including, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. He defined the genre for nearly seven decades with his unique style of electric guitar playing and earned himself the nickname the ‘King of the Blues.’
In 1968 he performed at the Fillmore West in San Francisco and considered it to have been his moment of his commercial breakthrough which he admitted in a 2003 television interview. When he saw long-haired white people lining up outside the Fillmore, he claimed, he told his road manager, “I think they booked us in the wrong place.” Then the promoter Bill Graham introduced him to the sold-out crowd: Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the chairman of the board, B. B. King. “Everybody stood up, and I cried,” he said, “and that was the beginning of it.”
In 1989, at the age of 64, he reached a brand new audience when he teamed up with U2 for the top 10 hit When Loves Comes to Town which gave him his first UK hit. His only other foray into the singles chart was in collaboration with Gary Moore on the track Since I Met You Baby in 1992. In 2000 he teamed up with Eric Clapton and recorded the album Riding with the King which made number 15 on the album chart.
He launched a number of Blues clubs, the first one being on Beale Street in Memphis in 1991. His second was in 1994 at Universal City Walk in Los Angeles then Times Square (New York 2000), Foxwoods Casino (Connecticut 2002), 2nd Avenue (Nashville 2003), West Palm Beach (Florida 2009) and the final one at the Mirage Hotel (Las Vegas 2009).
During his career he released 50 albums and won 15 Grammy awards the first being in 1970 for his song The Thrill Is Gone. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 followed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 – the same year he won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004 he received the international Polar Music Prize which is an award given to artists who are recognised for exceptional achievements in the creation and advancement of music.
In the mid-50s, he was performing at a dance in Arkansas, when a couple of fans became unruly and started a fire. King ran out but forgot his guitar and risked his life to go back and get it. He later found out that the two men were fighting over a woman named Lucille and one of them knocked over a kerosene heater which started the fire. He named the guitar Lucille, which he said, “It was to remind myself never to do anything that foolish.”