22 October 2016
B.B. King is a legendary blues guitarist. Photo: Getty Images
B.B. King is a legendary blues guitarist. Photo: Getty Images

Blues legend B.B. King dead at 89

B.B. King, known for his scorching guitar licks and soulful vocals that earned him the title King of the Blues, died late Thursday at home in Las Vegas. He was 89.

Quoting his attorney, Brent Bryson, the Associated Press said King died peacefully in his sleep at 9:40 p.m. PDT (12:40 p.m. Friday in Hong Kong). 

King had continued to perform well into his 80s, although he suffered from diabetes and had been in declining health during the past year.

He collapsed during a concert in Chicago last October, later blaming dehydration and exhaustion. He had been in hospice care at his Las Vegas home.

For most of a career spanning nearly 70 years, Riley B. King inspired and mentored scores of famous guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall and Keith Richards. 

The 15-time Grammy winner recorded more than 50 albums and toured the world well into his 80s, often performing 250 or more concerts a year.

King will always be associated with his trademark black Gibson guitars, all of which he christened Lucille in memory of a woman who two men fought over in 1949 in an Arkansas dance hall where he was playing, Reuters reported.

The men knocked over a kerosene lamp, setting fire to the building. King risked his life to retrieve his US$30 guitar.

According to AP, King played with a style that included beautifully crafted single-string runs punctuated by loud chords, subtle vibratos and bent notes.

Nowhere was his style more evident than in his signature song, The Thrill is Gone.

King didn’t like to sing and play at the same time, so he developed a call-and-response between him and Lucille.

Born on Sept. 16, 1925 in Itta Bena, Mississippi, King began learning guitar as a boy and sang in church choirs, Reuters said.

After serving in the Army during World War II, King sang on street corners for loose change. In 1947 he hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, where he learned from and played with his cousin, revered blues guitarist Bukka White.

“Being a blues singer is like being black twice,” King wrote in his autobiography, Blues All Around Me, describing the lack of respect the music got compared with rock and jazz.

“While the civil rights movement was fighting for the respect of black people, I felt I was fighting for the respect of the blues.”

King went from touring black bars and dance halls in the 1940s and ’50s to headlining an all-blues show at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1970 and recording with the likes of Clapton and U2 in the ’90s.

In 1987, he received a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and awarded the National Medal for the Arts in 1990.

His two marriages ended in divorce with no children but he acknowledged fathering 15 with different women.

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