One of the great masters of blues guitar is dead. B.B. King died late Thursday at the age of 89. During a career that spanned nearly 70 years (his first recording was in 1949), the "King of Blues" influenced generations of musicians.
To his legion of fans around the world, the sustained, single-note guitar syle of B.B. King is unmistakable. He was without a doubt one of America's best-known and best-loved blues musicians. And he never seemed to lose the thrill, through a career in which he spent most of each year on the road, performing for audiences around the world.
"I've always felt that to be an entertainer, you've got to entertain. So I've tried to pull all my energies together if I'm singing, to put it all right there. I'm trying to remember that the people who come to see me are fans who are expecting the best that I have, so I never go onstage slack (unprepared)," King said.
Wherever B.B. King traveled, one of his signature black Gibson guitars accompanied him. He named each one of them "Lucille." He told fans he first christened his instrument just after a performance at a club in Arkansas, when two men had a fight and knocked over a kerosene heater, which started a fire.
"And everybody started to run for the front door, including B.B. King. When I got on the outside, I realized I left my guitar," he recalled. "And , in '49 believe me keeping a good guitar was a hard job. People would borrow them without your permission. I went back for my guitar, and the building was burning rapidly, and it started to collapse around me.
"So I almost lost my life trying to save my guitar," he added. "The next morning we found out these two men were fighting about a lady that worked in the nightclub. I never did meet her, but I learned her name was Lucille. I named my guitar Lucille to remind me never to do a thing like that again."
How BB got his name
The famous blues musician was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925. The name B.B. came later, an abbreviation of "Blues Boy," which he used while working in Memphis as a disc jockey. Before that, he worked on the Mississippi farm where he was born, picking cotton and driving a tractor. As a boy, B.B. King sang with amateur gospel groups. But by the age of 16, he was singing and playing guitar on street corners. He found that singing the blues was more profitable than singing gospel.
"As I played, people would come by and generally request tunes. And the people that would request gospel songs, would always praise me highly. They would say, 'Great, son. That is fantastic. Keep it up, you'll be great one day.' But they never tipped. But usually people that would ask me to play a blues song would always tip me and maybe (buy me) a beer from time to time. So you can see now, starting out to be a gospel singer, I decided to be a blues singer," King said.
B.B. King made his first record in 1949, at the age of 24. Three years later, his recording of Lowell Fulsom's "Three O'Clock Blues" became a number one R&B hit.
His only pop hit was "The Thrill Is Gone," from 1969, for which he received a Grammy. Nevertheless, B.B. King was described by critics as America's "most popular blues guitarist," and with good reason He had a tremendous influence on rock musicians like British guitarist Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and U2. B.B. King met the Irish band while performing in Dublin and ended up recording the song "When Love Comes to Town" them in 1988.
B.B. King credited the British rock bands of the 1960s with popularizing the music he loved, making it possible for him to crossover to a mainstream audience:
"When the British groups for example, the Rolling Stones, Cream, the Who, when these groups started to play blues in the U.S., it started to become a very popular kind of music and opened the doors for a lot of black blues singers and musicians like myself,” King said.
During his long career, B.B. King received 15 Grammy awards. He was inducted not only into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, but the Rock and Roll and R&B halls as well. He was awarded honorary doctorates from several universities and was honored by presidents. B.B. King kept his music fresh by being true to himself:
"I don't try to play what my ancestors played, as they played it. In fact, I don't play myself as I did in '49, when I began my career. I play as I feel today,” he said.