BB King, Legendary Blues Musician, Dies at 89

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BB King, Legendary Blues Musician, Dies at 89

'As long as people have problems, the blues can never die.'

B.B. King. (Photo: Getty Images)

B.B. King, the legendary blues musician whose unmatched sound changed the face of music, died Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 89.

King passed away peacefully in his sleep at his home, his lawyer, Brent Bryson, told the Associated Press. His daughter, Patty King, confirmed.

King's unparalleled style, marked by wailing guitar riffs and gravelly, howling vocals, evoked both his humble roots in the Deep South and the urbane cities that twisted his rhythms with a feverish pulse. His career, marked by tireless performances and Gibson guitars, which he always addressed as Lucille, spanned more than 70 years and included 15 Grammy wins, and influenced musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

The New York Times writes:

“I wanted to connect my guitar to human emotions,” Mr. King said in his autobiography, “Blues All Around Me” (1996), written with David Ritz.

In performances, his singing and his solos flowed into each other as he wrung notes from the neck of his guitar, vibrating his hand as if it were wounded, his face a mask of suffering. Many of the songs he sang — like his biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone” (“I’ll still live on/But so lonely I’ll be”) — were poems of pain and perseverance.

Riley B. King was born on Sept. 16, 1925, to Albert and Nora Ella King, both sharecroppers, on a cotton plantation near the town of Itta Bena, Mississippi. After his parents separated and his mother died while King was still a young boy, he was raised by his grandmother, Elnora Farr, in Kilmichael, Mississippi. A preacher uncle first taught him to play the guitar, which King honed during a childhood mired in poverty and isolation.

The Times continues:

His memories of the Depression included the sound of sanctified gospel music, the scratch of 78-r.p.m. blues records, the sweat of dawn-to-dusk work and the sight of a black man lynched by a white mob.

...In November 1941 came a revelation: “King Biscuit Time” went on the air, broadcasting on KFFA, a radio station in Helena, Ark. It was the first radio show to feature the Mississippi Delta blues, and young Riley King heard it on his lunch break at the plantation. A largely self-taught guitarist, he now knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a musician on the air.

At 22, after serving in the Army and marrying his first wife, Martha Denton, King sought out a performer in Memphis, Tennessee known as Sonny Boy Williamson—himself a rightful blues luminary—who gave King his first break at a nightclub.

"Before Memphis," he wrote in his autobiography, "I never even owned a record player. Now I was sitting in a room with a thousand records and the ability to play them whenever I wanted. I was the kid in the candy store, able to eat it all. I gorged myself."

The Times continues:

Memphis had heard five decades of the blues: country sounds from the Delta, barrelhouse boogie-woogie, jumps and shuffles and gospel shouts. He made it all his own.

... He began a tour of the biggest stages a bluesman could play: the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Howard Theater in Washington, the Royal Theater in Baltimore. By the time his wife divorced him after eight years, he was playing 275 one-night stands a year on the so-called chitlin’ circuit.

He eventually played the world.

Over the years, King's family expanded to include 15 biological and adopted children. Family members say 11 survive.

King's biggest hit came in 1969, when he recorded "The Thrill Is Gone," after his second marriage, to Sue Hall, ended in divorce after eight years. On the guitar, his romantic anguish soared and descended with hypnotic notes.

But King was more than just a virtuosic musician. Throughout a prolific career, he remained open-hearted and generous, both onstage and off. His influence on peers and proteges aside, King regularly staged meet-and-greets for his audiences after performances.

Charles Shaar Murray commemorated King at the Guardian:

65 years in the business and absolutely no-one ever had a bad word to say about him. His generosity to peers and protégés alike was as much the stuff of legend as his manifest talents. For much of his performing life he averaged 300 shows a year and devoted any energy left over after each performance to meet and greet his fans until utter exhaustion set in. No wonder he was taken to the world’s collective heart in a manner unlike any blues artist before or since; no wonder he was called “The Chairman of the Board of Blues Singers.”

"I've always tried to defend the idea that the blues doesn’t have to be sung by a person who comes from Mississippi, as I did," King wrote in the 1988 book Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music. "People all over the world have problems. And as long as people have problems, the blues can never die."

B.B. stood for "Blues Boy," a name he took on at the beginning of his career. But he was born a King.

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