B.B. King: A tribute to the King of the Blues

Blues fans are mourning following the death of B.B. King, one of the genre’s most celebrated figures.

The bluesman, who died aged 89 in his sleep, was one of his generation’s most iconic musicians and is widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists ever.

His soulful voice and wailing guitar-playing influenced countless stars, such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Peter Green.

King mainly played blues in his 65-year career, but his distinctive guitar playing is credited with underpinning rock music, and in 1989 he had a chart-topping hit with rockers U2 on When Love Comes to Town.

B.B. King in concert 05/07/1984 Roma 8° Jazz festival Pepito Pignatelli - Kodak film

B.B. King in concert at the Roma Jazz festival, 1984 | Photo by MT | Creative Commons License

His other most famous songs included The Thrill is Gone, Rock Me Baby, and Three O’clock Blues, and the 15 time Grammy award winning artist also starred in the blockbuster film The Blues Brothers as the leader of The Louisiana Gator Boys.

Born Riley B King in Mississippi to slave workers on a cotton farm, he said his upbringing “weren’t so good. We didn’t have any money. I never thought of the word ‘poor’ until I got to be a man, but when you live in a house that you can always peek out of and see what kind of day it is, you’re not doing so well.”

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B.B. in Hamburg, 1971 | Photo by Heinrich Klaffs | Creative Commons License

A family friend taught him to play guitar which gave him the chance to escape life as a farmhand.

We didn’t have any money. I never thought of the word ‘poor’ until I got to be a man, but when you live in a house that you can always peek out of and see what kind of day it is, you’re not doing so well.

King remained forever grateful for this opportunity. Years later he remarked:  “The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.”

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B.B. in 1985 | Photo by Gorupdebesanez | Creative Commons License

At first he didn’t know whether he wanted to be a gospel singer or blues singer, but decided after busking in Mississippi.

The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.”

“I’d go to town on Saturday afternoons, sit on the street corner, and I’d sing and play.

“I’d have me a hat or box or something in front of me. People that would request a gospel song would always be very polite to me, and they’d say: ‘Son, you’re mighty good. Keep it up. You’re going to be great one day.’ But they never put anything in the hat.

“But people that would ask me to sing a blues song would always tip me and maybe give me a beer. They always would do something of that kind. Sometimes I’d make 50 or 60 dollars one Saturday afternoon. Now you know why I’m a blues singer.”

His first music gig was as a resident musician at a club in Memphis. At this time, he also became a DJ and was billed as “The Beale Street Blues Boy”, eventually shortened to “Blues Boy King” before becoming just “BB”.

He began recording in 1950, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s when Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton told their young white audiences to listen to King that he achieved rock credibility. “It’s due to these youngsters that I owe my new popularity,” he remarked at the time.

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A plaque to B.B.’s guitar, Lucille in Arkansas | Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki | Creative Commons License

His commercial success grew and he recorded with a range of stars including Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, U2, Van Morrison, Mark Knopler, and Eric Clapton.

In 2008, he performed at the White House for Barack Obama, who joined him to sing a famous blues song Sweet Home Chicago.

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Singing the blues with the President | Photo by White House staff | Creative Commons License

Throughout his career King relentlessly toured, sometime playing more than 300 shows a year, breaking off to visit his fifteen children – 11 of whom survive him.

In Let the Good Times Roll – a song he made famous and which he often played live, King sang: “You only live but once, and when you die you’re done, so let the good times roll.”

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