The Associated Press reports that the great bluesman B.B. King, a man who rose from humble beginnings to become the undisputed and massively influential face of his genre, died last night in Las Vegas. He’d been suffering from type 2 diabetes for years, and his attorney claims that he died peacefully in his sleep. King was 89.
King was born Riley B. King on a Mississippi farm; the nickname, which he gained much later, stood for “Blues Boy.” King grew up singing in church and playing guitar, and he eventually left home to drive a tractor and tour area churches. He first found fame playing guitar on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show in Memphis, and he signed his first recording contract with RPM Records in 1949. There, he worked with a pre-Sun Records Sam Phillips.
Throughout the ’50s, King released a steady stream of R&B hits without sniffing the mainstream pop charts. He also toured tirelessly, something he’d keep up until nearly the end of his life. King’s guitar style was his trademark. He’d begun playing electric guitar in the late ’40s. And since he never really learned to sing and play guitar at the same time, he’d sing a verse, play a beautifully fluid solo, and then sing another verse. If you watch old footage of him, he had an enormous presence, and he brought a real sense of drama to those singing parts. But those solos are what he was famous for.
King scored his first mainstream pop hit with “Rock My Baby” in 1964, and during the British Invasion, he found another level of fame when all the blues-influenced British rock bands talked him up in interviews. The Rolling Stones took King on tour as an opening act in 1969, and in 1970, he won the first of what would be 15 Grammys. In the ’70s and ’80s, King was on TV constantly, guesting on shows like The Cosby Show and Sesame Street. He became an ambassador to his genre, duetting with U2 on the Rattle And Hum single “When Love Comes To Town” and giving Lucille, his famous guitar, to Pope John Paul II as a gift.
He was inducted into Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987. In 1991, he opened his first B.B. King Blues Club in Memphis, and it grew into a national chain. President George Bush gave him the National Medal Of Arts in 1990, and Bush’s son gave him the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2006. He embarked on a farewell tour in 2006 and then didn’t stop touring afterward. He performed at Bonnaroo in 2008 and Glastonbury in 2011. He was just a machine.
UPDATE: President Obama has shared a statement about King’s passing:
“The blues has lost its king, and America has lost a legend. B.B. King was born a sharecropper’s son in Mississippi, came of age in Memphis, Tennessee, and became the ambassador who brought his all-American music to his country and the world. No one worked harder than B.B. No one inspired more up-and-coming artists. No one did more to spread the gospel of the blues.
Three years ago, Michelle and I hosted a blues concert at the White House. I hadn’t expected that I’d be talked into singing a few lines of “Sweet Home Chicago” with B.B. by the end of the night, but that was the kind of effect his music had, and still does. He gets stuck in your head, he gets you moving, he gets you doing the things you probably shouldn’t do — but will always be glad you did. B.B. may be gone, but that thrill will be with us forever. And there’s going to be one killer blues session in heaven tonight.”
Below, watch some videos of King performing.