B.B. King loved to tell this joke: “When I eventually drop, I pray to God that it’ll happen in one of three ways. Firstly, on stage or leaving the stage, then secondly in my sleep. And the third way? You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.”
Riley B. King, the man we love and know as B.B. King, died in his sleep on May 14, 2015 at 9:40pm (PST) in Las Vegas, Nevada. He was 89 years old.
Riley B. King was born on the cotton plantation Berclair, near the town of Itta Bena, Mississippi, on September 16, 1925. His parents were sharecroppers – Albert and Nora Ella King and it is said that at the tender age of 4, King’s mother left his father for another man and young Riley was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Elnora Farr in Kilmichael, Mississippi.
As a young boy, King performed on street corners for pennies and sang in the Elkhorn Baptist Church choir. Self-taught, King purchased his first guitar at the age of 12. In 1947, he made his way to Memphis, TN, a town that was considered the mecca for any aspiring musician. In Memphis, King would blossom under the tutelage of his mother’s cousin, Bukka White, a blues man. It was also in Memphis, that King would secure his very own ten-minute radio show on WDIA called “the King Spot.” At WDIA, King would meet a man that would have great influence on his musical style, T-Bone Walker. “Once I heard him for the first time, I knew I had to have an electric guitar myself. Had to have one – short of stealing,” King said. He also decided that he needed a radio persona that people would remember, initially selecting “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which he shortened to “Blues Boy King,” and finally selecting the performance moniker “B.B. King”.
In the 1950’s, while performing with a $30 acoustic guitar at a music hall in Twist, Arkansas, two men got into fight, knocking over a kerosene stove, that ignited a fire in the hall. As everyone ran outside, King realized that he left his guitar inside and returned to the hall to retrieve his instrument. Later King would find out that the fight began over a woman by the name of Lucille and from that day forward, King would name each of his beloved guitars Lucille as a reminder to “never to do a crazy thing like fight over a woman.”
B.B. King and Lucille would begin a love affair that would transcend music and influence scores of musicians. King said that legendary guitarists Blind Lemon Johnson and T-Bone Walker influenced his style of play. His guitar of choice- the Gibson ES-355. Of his love affair with Lucille, King said, “When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.” In 1980, the Gibson Guitar Corporation launched the B.B. King Lucille model and in 2005, a special run of the 80th Birthday Lucille. King was given the first prototype, which he has used ever since. On his 15th studio album, King penned a song about Lucille. The album was simply entitled “Lucille.”
“I’m very crazy about Lucille…Lucille took me from the plantation…I mean when things are bad with me…I can always, you know like depend on Lucille…I guess I’ll let Lucille say a few words…(excerpts from the song Lucille).
King weaved blues, jazz, swing and pop into his own unique sound. His first number one-hit was in 1951, aptly titled Three O’clockBlues. King would go on to record a number of hits: You Don’t Know Me (1952), Please Love Me (1953), You Upset Me Baby (1954), Sweet Sixteen, Part 1 (1960), Don’t Answer the Door, Part 1 (1966), and The Thrill is Gone (1970).
Performing for audiences was in his blood. In 1956, King performed 342 one-night stands. His music would reach new heights in 1969, when the Rolling Stones asked King to be the opening act for their American tour. King’s music and style of play was introduced to thousands and he never looked back. King would continue to tour extensively around the world during his lifetime, averaging over 250 concerts a year.
A prolific artist, King’s 70 year career would include 15 Grammy awards and over 50 albums. In 1987, King was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and in 1998, his hit song, The Thrill is Gone was awarded a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, which, is given to a recording that is at least 25 years old and has “qualitative or historical significance.”
A recipient of numerous honors and awards, Rolling Stone ranked him #6 on its 2011 list of the 100 greatest guitarists. In 1977, Yale University would award King his first honorary doctorate degree in music. King would go on to be inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He received the National Medal of Arts award from President George H. W. Bush in 1990, and the National Heritage Fellowship award in 1991.
In 1995, King was given a Kennedy Center Honors award, which honors the “lifetime accomplishments and extraordinary talents of our nation’s most prestigious artists.” In December 2006, President George W. Bush would award King the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Brown University would award him his second honorary doctorate degree. In 2014, King was inducted into the Official Rhythm and Blues Music Hall.
King was married twice and it is reported that he fathered 15 children and had 50 grandchildren. King struggled with diabetes for most of his adult life. He would become a major spokesperson in the national fight against diabetes. Most people would be surprised to know that King was an FAA certified pilot and flew himself to most of his concert gigs.
In 2006, King announced his retirement, embarking on Farewell Tour across the world. But he never stopped playing or performing. King would continue to perform publicly until 2013 when his health began to fail.
On May 1, 2015, King announced on his website that he was in hospice care at his home in Las Vegas. He would die, as he wanted, in his sleep from a series of small strokes caused by complications from type 2 diabetes.
President Barack Obama led the world in paying tribute to the “King of Blues,” calling him an “ambassador who brought his all-American music to his country and the world. No one did more to spread the gospel of the blues. He gets stuck in your head, he gets you moving, he gets you doing the things you probably shouldn’t do,” Obama said. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation praised King stating in part: “King taught himself to play the guitar. The self-proclaimed Blues Boy used this instrument, and his unmistakable voice as a path into the music industry. For more than six decades he showed us why he sang the blues. His talent was the greatest gift to all of us.”
A public viewing will be held for King in Las Vegas, NV on Friday, May 22, 2015 at the Palm Mortuary West. Then Riley B.B. King will be taken back to the state where it all began. He will be buried on the grounds of the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi.