B.B. King, the Mississippi-born singer and guitarist who was the defining blues man of his generation for millions of fans worldwide, has died. King reportedly died at home in Las Vegas, where he had been in hospice care for several weeks. He was 89.
Born Riley King on September 16, 1925 in Berclair, Mississippi to sharecroppers Albert and Nora Ella King, King first picked up a guitar at the age of 12. Like many blues men, he initially sang gospel, but that changed when he heard “King Biscuit Time,” the first radio show to feature Mississippi Delta blues, in the early ’40s. That’s when King decided he wanted to play the blues, but life intervened, and he spent the next few years first working on a plantation for $5 a day, then serving in the Army during WWII.
After returning from the war, King married his first wife, Martha Denton, before heading to Memphis, Tennessee in search of work. While living with his cousin Bukka White—a great blues man in his own right—King sought out Rice Miller, who performed on “King Biscuit Time” under the name Sonny Boy Williamson II. Miller gave him his first gig, then a spot on the radio, which led to King getting his own 10-minute daily show on black-run radio station WDIA by the late ’40s. That’s when he started going by the name “Beale Street Blues Boy,” later shortened to “Bee Bee” and eventually just B.B.
King’s first No. 1 R&B hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” came in 1951; King hit the road to promote the song, and by all accounts never looked back. He spent the next decade touring extensively on the so-called “chitlin’ circuit;” statistics from his website reported by NPR say King and his band played 342 one-night stands in 1956, and he performed more than 250 nights a year well into his 80s.
According to legend, it was during a road gig that King first gave his guitar its famous nickname, “Lucille. ”King was playing a dance hall in Arkansas when a fight broke out and someone kicked over a stove, starting a fire; King, along with everyone else, fled the burning building, but when he realized he left his guitar inside, he ran back inside to retrieve it. He later found out that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, and called his signature Gibson ES-355s by that name ever after.
In the ’60s, King found a new audience in rock ‘n’ roll fans. He told an interviewer in 2003 that a 1968 gig at hippie haven the Fillmore West in San Francisco was the moment he felt he truly crossed over into the mainstream. Initially unsure whether he should play the gig when he saw the long-haired white fans lined up outside, King was heartened when promoter Bill Graham introduced him as “the chairman of the board.” “Everybody stood up, and I cried,” King said. “That was the beginning of it.” By 1969, he was playing arenas as The Rolling Stones’ opening act.
His biggest commercial hit, “The Thrill Is Gone,” came in December of 1969, reaching No. 15 on the pop chart and launching his album Completely Well to No. 38. He won his first Grammy for that single—he would eventually go on to win 15—and in the ’70s recorded several well-received albums while maintaining his legendary touring schedule. By the ’80s, King’s place in the musical canon was well established, and he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He received numerous honorary degrees from colleges like the Berklee School Of Music, Yale, and Brown, and received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.
King opened B.B. King’s Blues Club in Memphis in 1991, the first in what would become a chain of music venues across the country. Late in his career, he scored his biggest commercial hit to date, “Riding With The King,” with Eric Clapton, just one of King’s many devoted rock ‘n’ roll acolytes. The album sold more than 2 million copies and won a Grammy for best traditional blues album.
King is survived by his children, which vary in number from eight to 15, depending on the report.