B.B. King, one of the true titans of American music, particularly in the blues guitar idiom, died on Thursday night at his home in Las Vegas. He was 89. It was reported that King passed away peacefully in his sleep.
Without question, B.B. King (born Riley B. King) had a last name befitting of his talents and ultimate legend. Trailblazing a soulful, clean guitar sound, in which both the most scant amount of notes or a flurry of them could create waves of emotion within the listener, King was all turns memorable and aurally insightful, and ultimately influential.
To read a list of who the man influenced is like a who’s who of classic guitar players: Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, John Mayall, and countless others. From A-listers of the craft to aspiring unknowns playing in weekend bar bands in Anytown, U.S.A., the waves from the ocean B.B. King created ripple effect to this day.
The Mississippi-born bluesman got his start at an early age, studying luminaries of the guitar at the time like Django Reinhardt, another practitioner of the instrument, when he worked as a local DJ. He not only spun records of the bluesy genre, but also performed live music, something which eventually earned him the moniker “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which was later shortened to “B.B.”
By the time the 1950s rolled around, King started to rack up R&B hits. By the 1960s, he had crossed over to mainstream white audiences, who were just beginning to develop a voracious appetite for contemporary blues music in any form. King was at the top of the pack, and even garnered a memorable hit with “The Thrill is Gone” during that time. He recorded scores of adventurous studio and live records which showcased stellar backing bands, but also spotlighted the man himself, with his gritty vocals and of course, his effortless and emotional handling of his famed black guitar, which he lovingly named Lucille. He played with a variety of sounds like single notes and string bending, usually without much sonic histrionics, which added to his overall sound and allure. He delighted in engaging in a “call and response” with Lucille, and it became an instant trademark and notch to a legend who wound up netting himself scores of Grammy awards and eventually as the decades went on, living legend elder statesman style attention.
King had performed almost up until the end of his life; he had been forced to cancel a concert in Chicago last year due to exhaustion. In his last months, he had been in hospice care in his home state of Nevada.
B.B. King will not be forgotten — the sounds were too strong to ignore, then, now, and forever. The man summed it up when he once told the Associated Press that “People all over the world have problems, and as long as people have problems, the blues will never die.” As long as we have B.B. King in recorded form to listen to in perpetuity, the blues will never die. Here’s a raise of the glass to one of music’s greatest showmen of all time. The thrill is gone indeed but the sounds play on. Can’t you hear them?
RIP B.B. King
September 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015