LAS VEGAS (CN) – Blues guitar legend B.B. King died in his sleep Thursday night in Las Vegas. He was 89.
Renowned for his outstanding guitar tone, his tasteful choice of notes and soulful singing, King succumbed to diabetes after spending his last days at home in hospice care. The hard-working musician worked more than 200 concerts a year well into his 80s.
Born on a Mississippi cotton plantation in Itta Bena near Indianola on Sept. 16, 1925, Riley B. King was the son of sharecroppers.
He honed his guitar skills as a youth by busking on street corners for spare change in up to four towns per night. He hitchhiked to Memphis in 1947, where he said every important musician in the South eventually gravitated.
Memphis supported a vibrant and eclectic community of musical styles, and King lived with his cousin, Bukka White, whom King described as “one of the most celebrated blues performers of his time” and who taught him how to play the blues.
King’s big break came in 1948, when he played on Sonny Boy Williamson’s West Memphis radio program, which resulted in regular engagements at the 16th Avenue Grill in West Memphis and a recurring 10-minute feature called “King’s Spot” on a local radio station.
The radio spot’s time slot expanded and was renamed the Sepia Swing Club, and King soon shortened his nickname, “Beale Street Blues Boy,” to “Blues Boy King” and later to B.B. King.
King played Gibson semi-hollow body guitars, which he famously named “Lucille.” He said Lucille was the name of a woman over whom two men began fighting while he performed during a dance in Twist, Arkansas, during the mid-1950s. The two men knocked over a kerosene stove, which set the dance hall on fire, King said. He learned the woman’s name and named all of his guitars after her to remind him not to do anything that crazy, he said.
There were many Lucilles, one of which saved his life by holding a car off him after it overturned, King used to tell his audiences.
King’s first hit was “ Three O’Clock Blues ,” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1951 and led to national tours.
King recorded more than 50 albums and scored many more hits, including “The Thrill Is Gone,” which had immense crossover success and reached number 15 on the pop charts in 1970. He also had a No. 1 R&B hit, “You Don’t Know Me,” in 1952 and four No. 2 R&B hits.
But it was his preternaturally tasteful, economic and aching choice of notes, combined with a piercing but not hard-edged tone that made him a guitar legend. Other guitarists said, truthfully, that King could say more with one note than others could with dozens of them.
King was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He was bestowed with a lifetime achievement Grammy award in 1987 – one of his 15 Grammies.
King spent his last days in hospice care at his Las Vegas home. He is survived by 11 children.
King was a master showman. Often he’d let his band warm up the crowd by playing the first tune without him. Then he’d stride onto stage, sing a chorus or two without playing a note, though giving every indication he was about to. And when he finally coaxed a single note of Lucille, the crowd would go nuts.
King’s final days were marred by a legal fight between some of his surviving children and his attorney and manager. King’s daughter, Karen Williams, petitioned Clark County Family Court to take power of attorney away from King’s manager, Laverne Toney.
Williams and two of her sisters, Rita Washington and Patty King, told The Associated Press they think Toney was stealing King’s money, neglecting his medical needs and prevented his daughters and friends from visiting him.
Clark County Family Court Hearing Master Mon Norheim on May 7 said two investigations conducted by local police and social services indicated no wrongdoing. Norheim refused to consider the petition until all of King’s surviving children and grandchildren receive legal notice.
California bass player Fred Rivera, whose band opened a show for King in 199, told Courthouse News about King’s lack of ego and down-to-earth Mississippi hospitality.
“After opening the show for Mr. King, our band members stood backstage watching his heartfelt performance,” Rivera said. “By that time, Mr. King had to sit on a stool to perform, but the sheer thrill of watching a legend at work of overwhelming and inspiring.
“As B.B. left the stage, he stopped and spent at least 5 minutes talking to us before inviting us into his bus where we could carry on our conversation as he dried off and rehydrated.
“Instead of telling us how great he was, he took the time to ask us what our dreams were, what we wanted to do with the blues. He encouraged us to keep trying and carrying on until one day we too could be the headliners of a show.”
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