Legendary ‘King of Blues’ BB King, who electrified on stage worldwide including China, dies at 89
To Hong Kong and China fans, he is best remembered for his 1994 Asian concert tour
In this 2008 file photo, musician BB King performs at the opening night of the 87th season of the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Photo: AP
BB King, who became the face of the American blues worldwide and an inspiration for generations of rock guitarists, has passed away. He was 89.
King – almost as well known as his “woman”, the Gibson ES-355 guitar he named Lucille – died in Las Vegas, which was the blues legend’s primary residence amid years of incessant travel, his daughter said. King kept up a gruelling touring schedule even in his 80s, despite living with Type II diabetes for more than two decades.
To Hong Kong fans, King may be best remembered for his live concert in 1994. He came after he was flown in to Beijing to officially open the city’s Hard Rock Café.
While in the Chinese capital, King was photographed on the Great Wall with Lucille. The Asian tour also saw him play in Taipei, Singapore, Japan and Australia.
“The King of the Blues”, as he was universally known, led a life of non-stop touring, electrifying audiences in some 100 countries with his biting guitar licks and soulful songs of love and angst such as The Thrill is Gone and How Blue Can You Get. King for decades gave upwards of 300 concerts a year, racking up 15 Grammy awards.
But King’s fans noticed last year that some performances were increasingly erratic, and he cancelled remaining dates in October after falling ill at a show in Chicago.
“I have a disease which I believe might be contagious,” he said in an interview in 2007. “It’s called ‘need more.’”
Rising from sharecropper poverty in deep Mississippi, King was a consummate entertainer with a husky baritone who made a successful crossover from traditional African American audiences to rock and pop fans.
Lucille was named after a woman who was the focus of a fight between two men in Arkansas that led to a house being set on fire and King nearly being burned to death as he tried to rescue his instrument.
Through the guitar, he delivered an unmistakable mix of slow but sharp bite and long, moaning bends that influenced other guitar legends such as Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him the third greatest guitar legend after Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman and one ahead of Clapton. But his influence probably eclipsed all of theirs.
WATCH: ‘The Thrill is Gone’
Riley B King was born September 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi. His father left home when he was five, he was working in the fields at seven, and his mother died when he was nine.
A kindly white plantation owner bought him a red guitar when he was 12, and, as he moved up to driving a tractor on the farm, he spent his spare time singing in local Gospel groups and on street corners for spare change.
Eventually he made his way north to Memphis, Tennessee, a music capital which was to become his longtime base. Blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson put King on his radio show, where he made such an impression the young musician soon got his own programme, Sepia Swing Club.
On the radio he took the nickname Beal Street Blues Boy, then shortened it to Blues Boy King, and then B.B. King.
In 1949 he made his first six singles, and two years later hit paydirt with Three O’Clock Blues. It held the number 1 slot on the national rhythm and blues charts for 15 weeks.
He told interviewers he had always wanted to sing Gospel music, but it was blues that brought in money.
WATCH: ‘Three O’Clock Blues’
He developed his distinct style in the 1950s as he toured incessantly with his band. He never took up the slide guitar like most Delta bluesmen, but substituted with a vibrato from his left hand on the neck that rounded out his unique sound.
“By bending the strings, by trilling my hand – and I have big, fat hands – I could achieve something that approximated a vocal vibrato,” King said in his 1996 autobiography.
It made King’s blues, and for many, it became the essential sound of all blues.
By the early 1960s, however, King’s music lost its popularity with the rise of more slick R&B styles. But within a few years he would have a new audience: young, white and hip.
In 1968, British guitar star Clapton told Rolling Stone: “I still don’t think there is a better blues guitarist in the world than BB King.”
In 1969 the Rolling Stones invited King to open 18 US concerts, and his new career was launched.
WATCH: ‘Riding With the King’ with Eric Clapton
In 1970 he had his biggest-ever hit, the slow-moving, minor-key The Thrill is Gone, which took him for the first time onto the well-monied pop charts. It became one of his two signature songs.
The other was the show-stopping How Blue Can You Get.
King later added the title “Ambassador for the Blues”, as the US government sent him around the world for concerts, including a triumphant 1979 tour of Russia.
His family life, as biographer Charles Sawyer wrote, was “never normal by ordinary standards”. He told people that when his regular dates with Lucille came between him and a woman, the guitar always won.
He was married and divorced twice, and liked to say he had 15 children by15 women, but was very closed-mouth about any details. People magazine reported he had eight children. At least two of his children worked with his band, one as a backup singer.
Patty King, considered the youngest of his daughters, took charge of his care at the end of his life and reportedly fought with King’s longtime manager.
King made his 42nd and last studio album in 2008, One Kind Favour, that also brought him his final Grammy.
He recorded the Grammy winning Riding With the King with Clapton in 2000: the cover showed Clapton in the front seat of an open limousine chauffeuring a regal King together with Lucille in the back.
PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 May, 2015, 4:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 May, 2015, 4:26pm
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