THE DEATH OF B.B. King, at the age of 89, deprives the blues of its most influential musician and its most potent symbol. On the international cultural stage he represented blues as Louis Armstrong once represented jazz, a single performer who could stand, and speak, for the whole genre. It was nearly 60 years ago that the death of Big Bill Broonzy prompted writers to talk about “the last of the bluesmen”. It was a premature obituary then, just as it would be now, yet it is hard to imagine any blues artist of the future equalling the spell King cast upon generations of musicians and audiences.
“If T-Bone Walker had been a woman I would have asked him to marry me.”
Riley B. King was born near Itta Bena, Mississippi, in 1925 and might have expected no more than the circumscribed life of an African-American farmhand, had he not found that he could sing and play guitar. In his early twenties he moved to Memphis, where he roomed with his cousin, blues singer and guitarist Booker White. Assisted by Sonny Boy Williamson, he began to get gigs, and he was taken on as a disc jockey, presenting a show sponsored by Pepticon health tonic on the black-staffed radio station WDIA. He was billed “The Beale Street Blues Boy”, then “Blues Boy King”, then “B. B.”
After a 1949 session for Bullet Records in Nashville, he began recording for Modern, and late in 1951 broke into the R&B chart with a dramatic rearrangement of Three O’Clock Blues, a hit from a few years previous by Lowell Fulson. The record topped the chart for 15 weeks, first in a line of hits like Please Love Me, You Upset Me Baby, Ten Long Years, Sweet Little Angel and Sweet Sixteen.
On his dozens of recordings for Modern, mostly his own compositions, King developed a style that was both innovative and rooted in blues history. I wrote in 2006 in a review of his recorded work, “If King’s blend of long, singing notes with abrupt, chattering clusters was prompted by listening to T-Bone Walker, the incessant bending of the long notes and the rhythmic capriciousness of the clusters are King’s contribution... Both Walker and King, in their playing, echo speech patterns, but whereas Walker’s instrumental conversation is fluent and moderate, King’s is irregular and excitable; the phrases sometimes rush out in a torrent, sometimes stutter as if log-jammed.”
Talking about the musicians who had influenced him, he generally mentioned Walker first. “I’ve tried my best to get that sound,” he told Guitar Player. “I came pretty close, but never quite got it.” In an interview in the Guardian in 2001 he said, “If T-Bone Walker had been a woman I would have asked him to marry me.” But he was also prompt to acknowledge blues predecessors like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Lonnie Johnson, or jazz guitarists Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.
“I started to bend notes because I could never play in the bottleneck style.”
He would self-deprecatingly explain that his guitar technique was partly based on failure: “I started to bend notes because I could never play in the bottleneck style, like Elmore James and Booker White. I loved that sound but just couldn’t do it.” He could be equally offhand about his singing, a rich blend of honey and lemon, mixed half-and-half from crooners like Nat King Cole or Al Hibbler and blues shouters like Joe Turner and Dr Clayton. A favourite composer and singer was Louis Jordan, whose buoyant, funny music he commemorated in Let The Good Times Roll (1999).
All through the ’50s, King was a blues headliner on the chitlin circuit of black theatres and clubs, and his punishing schedules of one-nighters – in 1956 he’s said to have racked up 342 – wore out several tour buses. His bandsmen were more durable, and some stayed with him for decades.
In 1962 he tried to reshape his professional life by signing with ABC. At first it didn’t work: his initial albums, attempts to reposition him closer to the pop mainstream, disappointed his admirers as much as they probably did the company’s accountants. It took Live At The Regal (1964) to reassert the strength of his core blues repertoire and his commanding stage presence. It’s an iconic album, frequently cited by younger musicians as a transformative experience.
Blues numbers like How Blue Can You Get?, Don’t Answer The Door and Paying The Cost To Be The Boss kept him in the R&B lists, and in 1969 he hit the upper reaches of the pop charts, a club whose doors no blues artist had pushed open for many years, with the subtly orchestrated The Thrill Is Gone.
“For a man who started out driving a tractor through the Mississippi dirt, it had been an epic journey”
For the rock audience of the ’60s, blues was largely defined by the Chicago school of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. They didn’t discover King: he was brought to their attention by the musicians who admired him. “All of a sudden,” he said in a 1969 interview, “kids started coming up to me saying, ‘You’re the greatest blues guitarist in the world.’ And I’d say, ‘Who told you that?’ And they’d say, ‘Mike Bloomfield’, or ‘Eric Clapton’. It’s due to these youngsters that I owe my new popularity.” He increased his rock credibility with Indianola Mississippi Seeds (1970), a collaboration with Carole King and Joe Walsh that gave him another enduring hit with Leon Russell’s song Hummingbird.
After that, King took his seat as, in someone’s neat phrase, “the chairman of the board of blues singers”. Under the imaginative management of Sidney Seidenberg, he made international concert tours to Japan, Australia, China and Russia, and gave concerts to prisoners at Chicago’s Cook County jail and San Quentin.
A dedicated player of Gibson guitars, he was featured in company ads for a special model named after the succession of Gibson ES-355s he called Lucille. He lent his name to ad campaigns for Pepsi-Cola, AT&T, Cutty Sark whisky and Virginia Slims cigarettes, and to clubs in Memphis and Los Angeles.
With the chitlin circuit a fading memory, he appeared at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, was praised in Playboy magazine, was elected an Honorary Doctor of Music at Yale and received countless awards from blues and guitar magazines. On TV he sang the theme song for the sitcom The Associates and on the movie screen the title number of Into The Night. Many of his albums partnered him with his peers in other genres – The Crusaders, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones – and he joined U2 in the exuberant When Love Comes To Town.
From the ’90s onwards, for health reasons, he reduced his touring, but never so much that his fans overseas couldn’t catch up with him every year or two. Even when giving his act from a chair, the vibrancy of his singing and the fluency of his playing were hardly diminished. His 80th birthday celebrations included a Grammy-winning album of collaborations with Clapton, Mark Knopfler and others, tributes from musicians as diverse as Bono, Amadou Bagayoko and Elton John, and a “farewell tour” that proved not to be a farewell at all.
A B.B. King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center was opened in Indianola in 2008, and the following year he received his last Grammy award, for Best Traditional Blues Album, for One Kind Favor. He was the subject of several documentaries, most recently The Life Of Riley. At a 2012 concert at the White House, President Obama joined him to sing Sweet Home Chicago. For a man who started out driving a tractor through the Mississippi dirt, it had been an epic journey, not just for its milestones but for the inexhaustible spirit and dignity with which he achieved them.
Watch a B.B. King documentary