Arguably one of the most important musical figures of the 20th century, blues legend B.B. King died last night in Las Vegas at the age of 89. In early October, the tireless bluesman, who in 1956 had performed an astonishing 342 times, was forced to cancel the remainder of his 2014 tour when he fell ill following a performance at the House of Blues in Chicago, and just two weeks ago he entered home hospice care. The“King of the Blues” had lived with type 2 diabetes for more than 20 years and during that time frequently used his celebrity to raise awareness about the disease that took the lives of both his mother and one of his daughters. Though he is survived by two ex-wives, 15 children and some 50 grandchildren, it is his distinctive, lyrical guitar playing and his unique blend of the blues with other musical styles that are his greatest legacy.
On September 16, 1925, Riley B. King was born to sharecropper parents outside of Indianola, Mississippi. He developed a love for music at young age through his exposure to gospel music while attending church with his mother and grandmother. He soon became a dedicated member of the choir, developing his singing voice and even learning rudimentary guitar from the church’s reverend. But it was around the age of 7 that King was first exposed to the blues by his great aunt, who played him records by the likes of Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, lighting a fire in the young King that would lead him to a lifelong love affair with the blues.
After the deaths of both his mother and grandmother, King tried to make ends meet through cotton farming but soon found he could earn more than twice as much money singing and playing guitar on the street corners of Indianola. However, it was when he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1946 that King’s true education in the blues began. He stayed with his cousin, blues musician Bukka White, who mentored the young King, and when not practicing his own guitar playing, he spent much of his free time watching other bluesmen perform. His first step toward a career in music came in 1948 when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on the black-run KWEM. This landed him a regular slot at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis, where he performed six nights a week for $12.50 a night. As his regional popularity grew, King was eventually given a regular slot on Memphis radio station WDIA. It was during his tenure there that he tried on a new radio name, Beale Street Blues Boy, which he later shortened to Blues Boy King, before settling finally on B.B. It was at this point that King’s star truly began to rise.
In 1949 King made his first recording, and the following year he signed with RPM Records. The label released his “Three O’Clock Blues” at the end of 1951, and in 1952 the song became a huge hit, topping Billboard’s R&B charts for five weeks straight. His newfound popularity propelled King onto his first national tour, for which he assembled a 13-piece band, emulating the likes of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, whose work he admired. So began what would prove to be a life on the road. A virtually nonstop schedule of performances followed, and so too did King’s chart successes, including the #1 R&B hits “Story from My Heart and Soul” (1952) and “Please Love Me” (1953), as well as numerous top-20 R&B singles between 1952 and 1955.
Yet despite these accomplishments, King was unhappy with the terms of his contract with RPM and frustrated by his inability to reach mainstream audiences. Hoping to change his fortunes, in the early 1960s, King signed with ABC-Paramount and hired new management. For the next few years, he continued to tour relentlessly and recorded what are considered to be some of his finest albums, most notably Live at the Regal (1965). But it would be in 1968 that B.B. King finally made the breakthrough he had so inexorably pursued. Having played to primarily black audiences up to that point, King was shocked to tears when on June 6 of that year he walked onstage at the Fillmore West to a standing ovation from a mostly white crowd. A new awareness of the blues and its incorporation into the rock music of the era had opened the door for him at last. And he gladly walked through it, fully embracing his newfound role as the “Ambassador of the Blues,” and never looked back.
In the coming decades, B.B. King’s career would soar. In 1969, he opened for the Rolling Stones on 18 of their American concerts and also appeared on The Tonight Show for the first time. In 1970 he performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, further widening his exposure by reaching an estimated 50 million viewers. That same year, his song “The Thrill Is Gone,” reached #3 on the R&B charts and #15 on the pop charts, making it King’s first true crossover hit. It also earned him the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. But this was just the beginning of what would prove to be a half a century literally filled with awards, honors and further triumphs.
After another decade of touring and recording, in 1980, the first B.B. King biography, Arrival of B.B. King, was released by Doubleday. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. During the 1990s he also somehow managed to find the time to open a chain of B.B. King nightclub-restaurants. He received the Presidential Medal of the Arts in 1990, the Medal of Freedom in 2006 and honorary degrees from Yale, Brown and the Berklee College of Music, to name a few. In 2008 the B.B. King Museum opened in Memphis, and in 2009 he won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues album, his 15th Grammy in all, making him the winningest musician in the blues category.
As well as his contributions to the fight against diabetes, B.B. King’s charitable endeavors include the establishment of a foundation dedicated to improving prison conditions, and Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit that supplies musical instruments to schools in underprivileged areas. His contributions to music in the 20th century and beyond are immeasurable.