BB King dead: 'King of Blues' dies in Las Vegas aged 89

Known as one of the most influential blues musicians of all time

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The Independent Online

For over five decades, BB King was the living embodiment of the blues. An enduring link between the acoustic country-blues of the rural south and the electrified urban blues that would accompany the great African-American migration to the cities of the northern US, King spent most of his life engaged on a constant tour schedule, sustaining his uptown, sophisticated big-band style, even through the folk-blues and Chicago-blues booms of the Sixties.

A cousin of bluesman Bukka White, Riley B King was born in 1925 in Indianola, Mississippi, eventually escaping the plantation to develop a reputation in Memphis, where as “The Beale Street Blues Boy” he fronted a local radio show in the late Forties: the moniker would subsequently be shortened to “Blues Boy”, and eventually just “BB”. In 1949, keen-eared talent scout Ike Turner secured King a deal with Modern Records, for whom he would prove an invaluable asset: his 1952 hit “Three O’Clock Blues” topped the R&B chart for 15 weeks, the first of an impressive string of successes.

King’s powerful but sensitive vocal style had, in the usual manner, been honed in church, while his guitar playing drew on several influential forebears, including country-blues pickers alongside jazzmen Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. But the primary influence on his guitar technique was T-Bone Walker, the inventor of the electric blues. To this, King added an industrious finger-vibrato that gave his lines a unique pirouetting charm, entirely in keeping with his stately, urbane character. He played a Gibson ES355 dubbed “Lucille”, the appellation deriving from when he had to rescue the instrument from a club fire in Arkansas, and learned that the fire had been caused during a dispute over a girl of that name.

 

In the Fifties, King established the gruelling schedule of more than 300 shows a year, which would continue until the end of the century, routinely involving intolerable harassment by racist police. “Playing the blues,” he said, “is like having to be black twice.” He would make a crucial pop crossover in the early Sixties, thanks initially to “Rock Me Baby” – a cornerstone of the British blues boom later that decade – and “The Thrill Is Gone”, which became King’s signature piece for the rest of his career.

His adoption by white audiences came as a considerable surprise: once, arriving to play at the Fillmore West in 1968, he believed he had been driven to the wrong venue when he saw the queues of white kids outside. At that show, he was introduced by fellow performer Mike Bloomfield as “the greatest living blues guitarist”. Accompanied by the likes of Leon Russell, Joe Walsh and Carole King, his 1970 album Indianola Mississippi Seeds would give King his biggest success so far, heralding his elevation to heritage artist. Subsequent releases featured further collaborations with musicians such as Peter Green, Gary Moore, Eric Clapton, Bobby Bland and U2 – the latter group’s 1989 duet on “When Love Comes to Town” secured him a substantial late hit, while the 2008 album with Eric Clapton, Riding with the King, proved the most successful of his career, reaching double-platinum status in America.

King would remain a revered figure for the rest of his life, and one keenly aware of his cultural responsibilities. To keep the blues flame burning for subsequent generations, he donated his entire music collection of more than 20,000 records – including 7,000 rare blues 78s – to Mississippi University’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. And throughout his career, King regularly performed for prison audiences, while ensuring his music eschewed the blues’ more profane celebrations of sexuality, drugs and violence in favour of an aspirational attitude focused on emotion expressed with elegance.

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