B.B. King is gone. The universally proclaimed “King of the Blues” is dead at age 89 after spending more than six decades teaching the world about his chosen art form.
King was a titan of American entertainment, who played the Blues on street corners as a youth before thrilling generations of coliseum audiences with his trademark ringing guitar sound, after becoming acknowledged as the music’s main ambassador.
A transitional figure in American music, he popularized the Blues for mainstream America, which is part of why Blues giant Eric Clapton in 2008 called B.B. King “without a doubt the most important artist the Blues has ever produced.”
More evidence: His 15 Grammy awards and his 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. King’s influence is everywhere: The Beatles’ John Lennon even name-checked him on Let It Be‘s “Dig It.”
He was named as the sixth-greatest guitarist of all time on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2011 list. In 2003, Time ranked him the third-best electric guitarist of all time.
Here are our reasons why B.B. King was king of the blues:
King came from the bustling Memphis of the 1950s, a “melting pot” city where music of all types and color came together. This is where Country music and Rhythm & Blues first joined forces to create Rock ‘n’ Roll.
As a young man, his love of music helped him become friends with another hungry young local musician: Elvis Presley.
The Ultimate Blues Fan
King got his start as a Memphis disc jockey, playing Blues records as “Blues Boy” King (his real name was “Riley”). Like many great musicians (such as Willie Nelson), King’s work as a disc jockey paved the way for him playing music professionally.
As a music fan, his own tastes ran to the smooth: Frank Sinatra was King’s favorite singer.
He Owned His Style
King was fairly unique among Blues artists in his style of delivery, which used an old-school “call-and-response” singing style that mixed smooth crooning with the kind of hoarse, bluesy “field” shouting he had experienced firsthand as a boy picking cotton for a penny a pound.
He had a huge vocal range which allowed him to growl and howl with equal ease, before pegging the end of a line with some spectacularly high octave notes.
It typically sounded like this: King would belt out a line, then follow it with a guitar phrase that mimicked the line he had just sung. Then again and again, until King would hit some high vocal notes and let loose in a ringing electric guitar solo that was usually played on only one of his six strings.
This trademark sound sustained him for more than six decades.
His Guitar Was Alive and It Talked
King owned perhaps the most famous guitar in all pop culture…a midnight black Gibson electric with a semi-hollow body, which he famously named “Lucille.” The instrument was beyond precious to King; he once braved racing back into a burning building to get it.
(The fire broke out a club where two men were fighting over a woman. Her name? Lucille, of course.)
Although the entertainer, who maintained a 300-night-per-year schedule well into his 80s was married to two women during his life, one constant was his deep and abiding bond with the axe he cherished. In fact, he had numerous models of the Gibson, which is similar to an ES-355.
The guitar was so famous that in 1980, Gibson created the B.B. King Lucille model in tribute.
An Inventive Innovator
King helped advance Blues as an American art form, over the years seeking to constantly learn music production techniques and invest his work with a creative approach. For example, his landmark 1971 album “Live in Cook County Jail” rivaled Johnny Cash’s “Live at Folsom Prison” as one of the first recordings made in a prison.
He was technically proficient, too. An early tech adapter, King cut TV commercials during the 1990s on behalf of the Amiga personal computer.
Although lacking in formal education, he was known to be into various scientific subjects and remained interested in math well into his later decades. He was also a licensed pilot.
He Played There
Wherever it was, you can bet B.B. King played there. He toured with the Rolling Stones for a period of several years with barely a day off. He flew to Africa as one of the entertainers who played before Muhammad Ali’s famous championship fight with George Foremen (1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle”).
He would go anywhere to play the Blues, and everywhere.
King regularly showed up on TV’s “Tonight Show,” no matter which host happened to be behind the desk. As the most universally known figure in Blues, he played in virtually every type of venue, from small, intimate performances to huge arena audiences.
But no matter where he was or who he jammed with, he was always unmistakably B.B. King.
Before playing live with U2, the band was running through the song backstage, trying to show the chord sequence to the Blues legend. “Gentlemen,” King reportedly stopped Bono and the boys, “I don’t do chords.”
A Royal Presence
Beyond his personal successes, many in show business will miss the warm gentleman within B.B. King’s public personality. He may have been the king of the Blues, but he never acted like royalty.
He regularly made himself available to fans of all ages, particularly delighting in meeting rising young guitarists and hearing them play. And often playing with them.
There appeared to be little gap between the public persona and the actual man. Little wonder that Clapton (who cut a Grammy-winning album with King) called him “the most genuine and humble man” you could possibly meet.
It’s hard to tell which would have meant more to B.B. King…being known as a genuinely nice person or as the King of the Blues. He wore both crowns with equal grace.