Las Vegas (Ultimate Classic Rock) – Blues legend B.B. King died last night (May 14) at the age of 89 in Las Vegas, where the guitarist recently revealed he was undergoing hospice care. A cause of death has yet to be announced.
Born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, he spent his early years near Indianola, Mississippi, where his parents worked as sharecroppers. King’s parents split up when he was four, at which point he was taken in and raised by his maternal grandmother.
King acquired an early fascination with the guitar courtesy of his cousin, blues musician Booker “Bukka” White, who put him up for nearly a year after King left home at the age of 21 in order to follow White to Memphis. By the late ’40s, he’d built a local following for himself through a series of regular appearances — initially called “King’s Spot,” and later expanded to a full-length show titled “Sepia Swing Club” — on the Memphis station WDIA. It was during this period that he acquired his nickname, which started out as “Beale Street Blues Boy” before being shortened to “Blues Boy” and finally just “B.B.”
Parlaying that local notoriety into a recording contract for the Nashville label Bullet Records, King started recording single releases in 1949, working in the studio (often alongside future Elvis Presley producer Sam Phillips) between stops on an increasingly ambitious touring schedule that quickly took him all over the country — setting a pattern he’d continue to follow for decades, consistently playing hundreds of dates a year.
It was during one of those shows, in the winter of 1949 in an Arkansas dance hall, when he made a fateful decision that would come to define the B.B. King legend. A barrel of kerosene lit to heat the building during the show was knocked over during a fight, and King was forced to flee the building along with everyone else — only to dash back in when he realized he’d left his guitar inside.
“I went back for it,” King later recalled. “The building was a wooden building and it was burning so fast when I got my guitar, it started to collapse around me, so I almost lost my life trying to save the guitar. Well, the next morning we found that these two guys was fighting about a lady. I never did meet the lady, I never did meet the lady, but I learned that her name was Lucille, so I named my guitar Lucille to remind me not to do a thing like that again.”
King’s star truly started to rise after his 1952 single “3 O’Clock Blues” became a hit — the first of many successful releases that continued throughout the decade, establishing him as one of the biggest names in R&B. He arguably reached his commercial peak in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when his version of “The Thrill Is Gone” (from 1969′s Completely Well) won a Grammy, followed by 1970′s Indianola Mississippi Seeds, which broke the pop Top 40.
Unlike many of his peers, King continued to record steadily even after blues receded into the commercial margins during the late ’70s and beyond, amassing 42 studio LPs in all — concluding with 2008′s Grammy-winning One Kind Favor, which was produced by T Bone Burnett and included contributions from Dr. John.
Even as he piled up hit records and critical accolades, King remained a humble and eager student of the guitar until the end. “It seems like I always had to work harder than other people. Those nights when everybody else is asleep, and you sit in your room trying to play scales. I just wonder where I was when the talent was being given out,” he laughed during a 2009 interview with the Telegraph. “I have a motto – I guess that’s a good word – if I don’t learn something new every day, it’s a day lost. I think that way now because there are fewer days.”