B.B. King, the beloved “King of the Blues” and worldwide ambassador for the music he played through parts of nine decades, died last night at his Las Vegas home. He was 89. Born into near-slavery in Mississippi, abandoned by his parents at age four to spend a winter alone in a plantation shotgun shack, Riley B. King rose to become the world’s best-known electric bluesman, and arguably the greatest singer and guitarist the style has ever known.
King got his start in music walking miles into town from the plantation on Saturday nights to busk. Bulding a repertoire of originals and covers that would reach over one thousand songs, King managed to connect with the second Sonny Bon Williamson, Rice Miller, who doubled as a Memphis radio disc jockey when not on the road. King earned his nicknane – it stands for Blues Boy – as Miler’s dj protege. Using the radio gig as a springboard for his own career, King started with a small band and by the mid-50s was touring in his own custom-made bus with a full orchestra, playing upwards of 300 shows a year, a pace he maintained for most of his life. In his career, he played well over ten thousand concerts.
King described his vocals as “raw,” and although his gritty baritone could be plaintive and anguished, his singing was nuanced, sophisticated and eclectic. He could sing gospel fervently or raptly, or croon a ballad, as evocatively as he could rasp and wail his way through a bitter blues lament. He credited not fast fingers but fast wrists for enabling him to deveop fearsome guitar technique, his blazing speed on the fretboard coupled with a remarkably economical approach. And King was just as versatile a blues guitarist as he was a singer: in concert, he could bounce his way through a two-minute, thirty-second hit and then follow that with a ten-minute epic full of guitar pyrotechnics and not waste a note: his mind was as fast as his fingers. And he could channel any emotion he wanted: mystical rapture, buffoonish exuberance, fullscale angst or, when he was feeling it, unreptentant rage.
A scholar of the blues, King built a massive record collection that he ended up donating to Stony Brook University. Largely self-educated, King was a humble but proud man, pollitically aware but diplomatic to the point where Presidents from everywhere on the spectrum felt comfortable inviting him to the White House. As a result, King was the first American blues artist to tour behind the Iron Curtain during the Soviet regime.
Virtually every rock lead guitarist from the 60s through the 80s cited King as an inspiration, or their main inspiration. Many imitated him; none could quite match his tersely incisive attack, which he’d sometimes cap off with a joyous little slide from the highest strings.
By his own count, King officially released just under a hundred albums, hundreds of singles and two rather enigmatic autobiographies. Hundreds, maybe thousands of his shows were also recorded: there’s enough live B.B. King on the web to keep a listener in new material for possibly years. Conventional wisdom is that King’s most defining album is Live at the Regal, a 1964 recording that King disavowed, citing that he’d played thousands of shows better than that one. And he was right: of all the official releases, perhaps the most essential one is Live in Cook County Jail, from 1971. Like his fellow Americana icon Johnny Cash, King was populist to the core and frequently performed behind bars: this particular set features a particularly scorching, dynamically intesne version of How Blue Can You Get as well as versions of many of his biggest hits, including 3 O’Clock Blues, The Thrill Is Gone and Please Accept My Love.
In recent years, as King’s fingers slowed, he went for depth rather than adrenaline. Onstage, his lines became more spare, resonant and mystical, Although the big, robust frame that had shouted and sweated and fired off dizzying volleys of notes for so long was now confined to a chair, King had lost none of his ability to tease and cajole and entertain a crowd. At his last large-scale New York show, outdoors on the water behind the World Financial Center in July of 2013, he transcended a dodgy sound system to deliver a brief set of familiar hits that still found him searching, and exploring, and finding ways to make old material that he’d played hundreds of times sound fresh. Which wss no surprise: transcendence defined B.B. King.