Home / Music & Arts / B.B. King dead at 89: A Daily News appreciation

B.B. King dead at 89: A Daily News appreciation

B.B. King on stage at the April 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden.Larry Busacca/Getty Images

B.B. King on stage at the April 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden.

B.B. King was quick to tell anyone who asked that he was not the most skilled bluesman of the 20th century.

But no one did more to spread the blues into the American mainstream than Riley “Blues Boy” King, whose death in Las Vegas at the age of 89 was announced early Friday morning.

The cause of death has not been revealed, though he had been suffering from slowly debilitating infirmities for several years.


Some blues fans would argue that B.B. wasn’t even the most skilled bluesman named King — that Albert or Freddie or even Earl may have at times wrung more intricate music from their guitars than B.B. coaxed from the Gibson ES-335s, later ES-355s and ES345s, that he called Lucille.

But no one — not Muddy Waters, not Howlin’ Wolf, not Robert Johnson himself — did more to lift the blues from the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta to White House ceremonies and center stage at the Grammy Awards.

Equally gratifying, B.B. King lived to enjoy the rewards of a music that so often seemed to make everyone rich except the people who created and played it.

A solid star in the largely black blues world of the early ’50s, King was “discovered” during the blues revival of the ’60s and became such a favorite of white audiences that he crossed over to Top 40 radio with the 1970 hit “The Thrill Is Gone.”

While his contemporaries gradually fell to the sidelines, King remained active on the club, festival, arena and theater circuit into the 21st century.

“I’m 74 now,” he mused in early 2000, “so I’ve cut back to 200 shows a year.”

By then his hundreds of recordings had made him a brand name almost synonymous with the blues in the Americas, Europe and the Far East. In 1992 he lent that name to a club on the rejuvenated Beale Street in Memphis, where his career began, and soon there were B.B. King clubs in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles.

“I thought, ‘Why not’,” King mused in May 2000, just before the Times Square branch opened. “People like to go out and enjoy themselves. And I like live music.”

That’s an understatement as wide as the Delta. From the ’50s into the ’90s, King averaged 250-300 one-nighters a year. There was hardly a venue in America, from the Fillmore East to the Apollo Theater to the “Ed Sullivan Show” to every 800-seat theater in the American South, where he didn’t make a stop.

“He was out there so much he became a common vocabulary,” said the late Stevie Ray Vaughn. “No matter what else was happening, B.B. King was keeping it alive.”


King grew up in Itta Bena, Miss., the heartland for the acoustic music of the ’20s and ’30s that became the earliest recorded country blues.

He was a cousin of the respected bluesman Bukka White, who tutored him for almost a year, and by the early ’40s he had decided music was his ticket to the future.

“I picked a lotta cotton,” King reflected years later. “I was good, too. I could pick 500 pounds a day. That was hard. I figured the guitar was easier.”

So he moved to Memphis, a town saturated with musicians of all genres. That made it easy to find gigs and hard to get noticed for doing them.

King wasn’t without experience. Besides playing the guitar, he had sung with a local group back home, the Elkhorn Singers. When he got to Memphis he played for a while with Sonny Boy Williamson, then eventually broke off to form his own group, which was no path down easy street.

“I was working [days] at the Newberry Equipment Company,” he recalled. “They sold tanks you put underground at gas stations. I’d play at night and on weekends. Didn’t make much money. I remember for dinner, you’d come into town to the cafe and get 15 cents worth of chili. A Barq Cola was a nickel and you’d get five cents worth of crackers to go with the chili. That’s how you lived.”

Then he caught a break, when Memphis’ WDIA became the first radio station in the country to offer all-black programming.

King got an invitation to play on the station and was so well received that in 1949 he became a deejay, hosting the “Sepia Swing Show.” He remembered WDIA owner Bert Ferguson, in particular, as “very helpful to me.… I’m still using things I learned at WDIA.”

What he never did learn, he confessed, “was how to talk like a radio person.” Still, he was a popular personality and his listeners included a young Elvis Presley.

Soon, however, his music outpaced his radio career, and he was approached by Ike Turner, a traveling talent scout for several rhythm and blues labels, to cut some records.

Turner sold King’s first sides to the Los Angeles-based RPM label owned by the Bihari Brothers, and his first hit, “3 O’Clock Blues,” was No. 1 for five weeks on the R&B charts in early 1952.

By then he had developed a distinct guitar style – straight and uncluttered, with signature trills and tremolo – that he would follow his whole career.

Eric Clapton, who said he went to school on King’s style when he was young, called King “one of the best and most important blues guitarists in history,” though King demurred.

When he and Clapton recorded some duets in the late 1990s, King said, “He shows me things I’d have never thought about doing. That’s not false modesty. I just know what I can do and what I can’t. For example, I’ve never been able to sing and play at the same time.”

If he had limitations, that didn’t stop the rest of the music world from joining Clapton in awe of what he had done. Almost every blues artist wanted to play with him. The Rolling Stones booked him as an opening act. He was inducted into the blues and Rock and Roll halls of fame. He won 14 Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2005 President George W. Bush draped a Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck.

The honor that most touched him, he said, came when the state of Mississippi honored him with a formal hour-long ceremony on Feb. 15, 2005.

“I feel like the prodigal son,” he said. “I feel like a real citizen.”

That wasn’t a superficial sound bite. The Mississippi in which he grew up, he noted, was a state where he couldn’t get a drink of water unless the fountain specified “colored.”

Mississippi is also the site of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, and blues historians called King an ideal umbrella under which to tell all the stories of the Delta and the blues.

“To say he’s the most famous blues guitarist in the world isn’t saying very much,” said Scott Barretta, former editor of Living Blues magazine and a consultant to the Delta Center. “Because there’s nobody in second place.”

The growing glow around King’s image wasn’t hurt by the fact he was personally gregarious and unfailingly pleasant, or that he loved to share the stories he had accumulated during a half century on the road.

His guitar got the name Lucille, for instance, he explained, because he was playing in a club in Twist, Ark., when a fight broke out and a kerosene stove was knocked over, lighting the joint on fire. King ran back in to rescue his guitar, which was more brave than smart, and when he learned the subject of the fight was a girl named Lucille, he decided that was a keeper.

When Lucille was born, King was playing almost exclusively for the black Americans who had created the blues and kept it alive. Country blues had evolved into electric urban blues and its cousin rhythm and blues by the 1950s, but the artists and audiences were still almost all black.

By the mid-’50s, though, with the arrival of the hybrid called rock ‘n’ roll, the blues splintered. Within a decade, black popular music was moving toward soul and the pop R&B of Motown. By the ’70s, a large part of the audience for the old-school style of R&B and blues was white, and had spread around the world.

Since King stayed largely with his musical roots, he found his audiences getting gradually whiter – though it’s a mark of his esteem within the black community that even after black radio had largely stopped playing the blues, B.B. King remained a known and honored name.

His longevity, in some ways, came in spite of the way he lived, or at least the way he ate. The road is a sedentary place to start with, and King suffered for years from diabetes even as he declined to abandon the foods of his childhood – fried and sweet.

For a snack during an interview, he might finish off a fried egg and cheese sandwich with a side order of fries.

“I’m a Southerner,” he said. “I like the kind of food I’d be having at home.”

On the other hand, he quit smoking after the first alarming Surgeon General’s report. He also quit drinking.

“I used to drink quite a bit at the beginning of my career,” he said. “Other guys would do it, so I did, too. But I realized that in a little while, I wasn’t myself, and I didn’t want to go on stage like that. It wasn’t right. People aren’t coming to see a drunk.”

The rules in place, then, he rolled on, 300 one-nighters a year, the stinging guitar and the rich voice. He was a commanding force in a well-pressed suit.

“Three seconds of his music,” said Baretta, “and you know exactly who he is.”

The downside in his climb to musical fame and fortune was that it often left his personal life in tatters.

Not alone among musicians, he married women who eventually grew tired of the fact their man was never around.

He was first married on Nov. 11, 1944, when he was 19, to Martha Denton. Eight years later she informed him she couldn’t take any more and wanted a divorce.

He later said this stung him badly, though it had a small side benefit also not uncommon in the musical world. It inspired him to write the painful “Woke Up This Morning,” which became one of his biggest hits.

The blues legend performs at the second anniversary celebration of B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill in TImes Square in 2002.RICHARD DREW/AP

The blues legend performs at the second anniversary celebration of B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill in TImes Square in 2002.

B.B. King and Colin Powell at Kennedy Center Awards Dinner.Nelly, James, N.

B.B. King and Colin Powell at Kennedy Center Awards Dinner.

B.B. King, circa 1968.Michael Ochs Archives

B.B. King, circa 1968.

Posing in Memphis, 1948.Michael Ochs Archives

Posing in Memphis, 1948.

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He married his second wife, Sue Hall, on June 4, 1958. This one also lasted eight years, and he would later say she was still on his mind several years later when he recorded “The Thrill Is Gone.”

He had no children in either marriage, which is not to say he had no children.

The figure he most frequently offered was 15, which he said came from 15 different women — a fact that, if true, could also have been a contributing factor to the demise of his marriages.

Some biographers have suggested he really fathered just eight illegitimate children, and assisted various women in adopting five others.

Whatever the precise statistics, he said one of his few regrets about working so hard was that he didn’t see enough of his children.

“I’ve never been the father I wish I could have been and wanted to be,” he said in the late ’90s. “Due to my job, I just was never there in person. In spirit, yes, and financially, yes. I’ve been told by my children that just being there in person would have been better.”

While a good part of his earnings over the years went to family support, it’s a mark of his success that by the time his long-time manager Sidney Seidenberg straightened out his business affairs in the ’70s and ’80s, there was also enough left for King himself to live a comfortable life.

The artist who was once astonished that someone would pay him $ 12.50 to play guitar on stage for four hours would eventually command thousands.

“I’ve always been a terrible businessman,” King said. “But if you look hard enough, you can find people who will do it for you.”

The artist whose first records were released on 78 rpm lived to see his music tucked into iPods.

He never stopped being amazed that when he came to New York, he’d spend more money on a single cab ride than he once earned from a week in the cotton field. But each time the world changed he found he still liked it, as long as he could still be the chief ambassador of the blues.

“The blues is universal,” he said. “Everyone of every color, I don’t care who you are, sometimes gets the blues.”


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Music & Arts – NY Daily News


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