The world of music suffered a mournful loss on Thursday, May 14, when American blues guitar legend B.B. King passed away in his Las Vegas home. The county coroner attributed his death to a series of small strokes linked to his Type 2 diabetes, leaving behind 15 children and about 50 grandchildren. He was 89.
King was a musical titan, and his name is synonymous with the blues. His music inspired, and continues to inspire, generations of musicians including Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Lenny Kravitz. King’s impact on popular music is incalculable, and he continued to pack auditoriums and gather crowds at festivals around the world until his death. According to blues scholar Edward M. Komara, King, “introduced a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that would influence virtually every electric blues guitarist that followed.”
B.B. King was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation near the town of Itta Bena, Miss. His parents, Albert and Nora Ella King, were sharecroppers, but the family was broken up when his mother left for another man when Riley was 4, leaving him mostly in the care of his maternal grandmother, Elnora Farr. King first performed music by singing for the Elkhorn Baptist Church gospel choir, whose reverend taught him basic guitar chords. By the time he was 14, his mother and grandmother had died, and for the next two years he alternated between living with his father and independently working the cotton fields around his grandmother’s hometown of Kilmicheal, Miss. He soon tired of manual labor, bought a guitar for $15, and decided to become a musician full time. At first, he sang in a gospel group, but soon became fascinated with the blues music he heard on the radio, and moved to Memphis to learn blues guitar from his mother’s first cousin, Bukka White. King began playing bars and restaurants around town, where he earned his nickname “Blues Boy” King, soon shortened to B.B. King.
During his time in Memphis, King was performing in music hall when two men got in a fight and knocked over a kerosene stove, setting the whole building on fire. Everyone fled the burning structure, but King soon realized he had left his behind his guitar. He ran back inside and retrieved it. After learning the fight was started over a girl named Lucille, King decided to name all of his future guitars Lucille, a tradition he upheld for the rest of his life.
Soon, King had refined his guitar playing and gained enough notoriety to earn him play on local radio stations. Unfortunately most of these radio stations catered to a predominantly white audience and did not play the blues until after midnight. In response, King started touring extensively on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of clubs and concert venues friendly to black performers extending from the South to the East Coast, averaging about 275 shows per year.
King signed with RPM Records in 1949 and released his first hit, “3 O’Clock Blues,” in 1952, spending five weeks at the top of Billboards’ Rhythm and Blues chart. The success of “3 O’Clock Blues” allowed King to play larger jazz clubs and theaters, including Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater. He soon became a star in the African-American community, but it took an endorsement by guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who was influenced by King’s guitar playing, for white listeners to take notice. In 1969 he released his most famous song, “The Thrill is Gone,” and became the biggest name in blues. He started playing college campuses, folk festivals, and TV programs like The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show.
King is the recipient of seven Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is a member of the Songwriting, Blues, and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, solidifying his status as one of the greatest players to ever pick up a guitar. His music lives on in all the musicians he influenced, and the music they influenced in turn, accounting for pretty much every modern music genre, from indie rock to hip hop, playing from every radio and every speaker around the globe.