WASHINGTON, May 15 – B.B. King, with his ever-present guitar Lucille, rose from sharecropper poverty in deep Mississippi to become the face of the American blues worldwide, has died at the age of 89.
“The King of the Blues,” as he was universally known, led a life of non-stop touring, electrifying audiences in some 100 countries with his biting guitar licks and soulful songs of love and angst such as “The Thrill is Gone” and “How Blue Can You Get.”
King died Thursday in Las Vegas, which was the blues legend’s primary residence amid years of incessant travel, his daughter said.
King kept up a grueling touring schedule even in his 80s, despite living with Type II diabetes for more than two decades.
But King’s fans noticed last year that some performances were increasingly erratic, and he canceled remaining dates in October after falling ill at a show in Chicago.
A consummate entertainer with a husky baritone who made a successful crossover from traditional African American audiences to rock and pop fans, King for decades gave upwards of 300 concerts a year, racking up 15 Grammy awards.
“I have a disease which I believe might be contagious,” he told AFP in an interview in 2007. “It’s called ‘need more.’”
– His guitar, his ‘woman’ –
Almost as well known was his “woman,” the Gibson ES-355 guitar he named Lucille, after a woman who was the focus of a fight between two men in Arkansas that led to a house being set on fire and King nearly being burned to death as he tried to rescue his instrument.
Through Lucille he delivered an unmistakable mix of slow but sharp bites and long, moaning bends that influenced other guitar legends such as Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him the third greatest guitar legend after Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman and one ahead of Clapton. But his influence probably eclipsed all of theirs.
Riley B. King was born September 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi. His father left home when he was five, he was working in the fields at seven, and his mother died when he was nine.
A kindly white plantation owner bought him a red guitar when he was 12, and, as he moved up to driving a tractor on the farm, he spent his spare time singing in local Gospel groups and on street corners for spare change.
Eventually he made his way north to Memphis, Tennessee, a music capital which was to become his longtime base. Blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson put King on his radio show, where he made such an impression the young musician soon got his own program, Sepia Swing Club.
On the radio he took the nickname Beal Street Blues Boy, then shortened it to Blues Boy King, and then B.B. King.