15 May 15
One of the greatest American musicians of all time, B.B. King, passed away in his sleep on Thursday 14 May 2015 in Las Vegas. He was 89. The “King of the Blues” mentored scores of guitarists, including Eric Clapton. EC posted a video tribute to B.B. on Facebook, which can be viewed here (or watch it below).
Riley B. King was born on a cotton plantation near Itta Bena, Mississippi on 16 September 1925. Known worldwide as the “King of the Blues”, his trademark is his instantly recognizable vibrato. He wouldn’t become “B.B.” until 1948.
B.B first learned to love music through church services, as the preacher would lead the singing by playing guitar. He taught B.B. a few basic chords. By 9, he was singing in a gospel group. In his mid-teens, B.B. began working on a plantation as a tractor driver. He continued to sing and also began accompanying gospel groups on guitar.
During World War II, B.B. was required to register for selective service. The plantation owner told him he would have a better chance of a deferment if he was married, so B.B. married his first wife in November 1944.
Two years later, in May 1946, B.B. had an accident with a plantation tractor, breaking off the exhaust stack. Not wanting to face the owner, he left Mississippi for Memphis with $2.50 and his guitar. B.B. moved in with his cousin, Bukka White, who schooled him in the blues. In 1947, with his music career going nowhere, he moved back to the Mississippi plantation where he and his wife worked as share croppers.
In 2005, B.B. was asked what inspired him to become a musician. He replied, “I was poor! We never had anything when I was growing up, never had our own home. I picked cotton for a dollar a day, I baled hay by hand, planted corn and soybeans. Then I was offered $3 a day to drive a tractor. But once I got better on the guitar, I could stand on Church Street in Indianola, Mississippi and make $50 or $60 in one evening. Now, why would I want to keep driving that tractor?”
In 1948, he returned to Memphis determined to become a success in the music business. There, he looked up Sonny Boy Williamson (Aleck “Rice” Miller) and convinced Sonny Boy to let him play on his radio show. Sonny Boy also passed gigs to B.B that he couldn’t fit in. B.B. then secured a radio gig of his own at WDIA where he worked as a DJ and played live on air. Needing a catchy name, he called himself the “Beale Street Blues Boy” which he shortened to “Blues Boy King” and eventually to “B.B. King”. Through his show, his fame began to spread.
He recorded his first singles in 1949, but would not have a hit until 1951, “Three O’Clock Blues.” Between 1951 and 1985, he was on the Billboard Charts 74 times between 1951 and 1985.
His Gibson guitar, Lucille, was as famous as the musician. He often recounted the story that one night in the early 1950s, he was playing in a small club when a fight broke out over a woman and a kerosene-filled garbage pail that was being used for heat was knocked over. The room turned into an inferno. Outside, B.B. realized he had left his guitar in the club. He foolishly rushed back in to save it. He was badly burned and almost lost his life when the building began to collapse around him. The next morning, he learned the woman’s name was Lucille. He named the guitar after her to remind himself never to do something so stupid again. Today, Gibson markets a “Lucille” model with B.B.’s endorsement.
B.B. was revered by many rock musicians, even touring with U2 in the late 1980s. But his association with Eric Clapton brought his music to millions of rock fans around the world. Over the years, the men shared a stage numerous times since they first met in the late 1960s. B.B. was an honored guest at all of EC’s Crossroads Guitar Festivals (2004 / 2007 / 2010 / 2013). They performed with Buddy Guy at Buddy’s induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in March 2005. In 1999, they teamed up for the Grammy Awards, the NAACP Image Awards and the “Concert Of The Century”, which took place at the White House in Washington, D.C. On October 15, 1998 B.B. walked on for the encore at Eric’s Earls’ Court, London concert. Additionally, Eric appeared on an American television salute to B.B., which was released on video as B.B. King and Friends (1988).
B.B. and Eric also got together in the recording studio. In 1998, they duetted on “Rock Me Baby”, for King’s album, Deuces Wild. In the early months of 2000, they recorded tracks for the album, “Riding With The King.” It topped the charts, garnered several awards and was certified gold within three weeks of release. They teamed up again in 2005 to record B.B.’s “The Thrill is Gone” for B.B.’s CD 80.
In December 2006, B.B. received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President George W. Bush, in recognition of his musical contributions.