Riley B.B. King was so good Gibson made the Lucille guitar series in his honour. The legendary guitarist whose velvety voice and staccato-picking style brought blues from the margins to the mainstream, died this week in Las Vegas, US, aged 89.
He reigned as “king of the blues” for more than 60 years and influenced generations of rock and blues musicians, from Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to Sheryl Crow and John Mayer.
He refused to slow down even after cementing his status as an American music icon and the B.B. King Museum that opened in 2008 attests to his legacy.
Throughout his career, King evolved with the times to incorporate contemporary trends and influences without straying from his Delta blues roots.
King started showing signs of his age only last year after decades of living with Type II diabetes.
He fell ill in October after a show at Chicago’s House of Blues. He was hospitalized for dehydration April in Las Vegas, a long way from his modest roots as the son of a sharecropper.
King was born on September 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation between Indianola and what is now IttaBena, Mississippi. He sang with church choirs as a child and learned basic guitar chords from his uncle, a preacher.
In his youth, he played on street corners for dimes, saying he earned more in one night singing on the corner than he did in one week working in the cotton field.
He enlisted in the Army during World War II but was released because he drove a tractor, an essential homefront occupation.
In 1947, he hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, home to a thriving music scene that supported aspiring black performers. He stayed with his cousin Bukka White, one of the most celebrated blues performers of his time, who schooled King further in the art of the blues.
King took the Beale Street Blues Boy, or BB for short, as a disc jockey for radio station WDIA/AM Memphis.
He got his first big break in 1948 by performing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program out of West Memphis, leading to steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis, and a 10-minute spot on WDIA.
As “King’s Spot” grew in popularity on WDIA, King shortened “Beale Street Blues Boy” to “Blues Boy King,” and eventually became B.B. King.
King has used various models of Gibson guitars over the years and named them each Lucille. In the 1980s, Gibson officially dropped the model number ES-355 on the guitar King used and it became a custom-made signature model named Lucille, manufactured exclusively for the “King of the Blues.”
Over the years, he racked up 30 Grammy nominations and 15 wins, including two in 2000: one along with Eric Clapton for Best Traditional Blues Album for “Riding with the King,” and another with Dr. John for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for “Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t (My Baby).”
His last was in February 2009 for Best Traditional Blues Album for “One Kind Favor.”