B.B. King (pictured), considered one of the greatest Blues musicians of his era, has died. For nearly seven decades, King has come to represent the folk music sound created by African-Americans in the Deep South.
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Born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, the future legend was born on a cotton plantation near the town of Itta Bena in Mississippi. Raised primarily in the state by his maternal grandmother, King sang in church choirs as a boy.
A great aunt shared vintage Blues records with King, which influenced him greatly. After the death of his mother and grandmother, King worked in the cotton fields as well but soon learned that singing and playing guitar in and around the town of Indianola would pay far more.
King moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1946, living with his cousin and Blues musician Bukka White. Under White’s tutelage, King became an adept guitar player and began studying other players.
In 1948, King made a performance appearance on an all-Black radio station KWEM. After his impressive debut, King was a fixture at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis. As his fame and talent grew, King tried on a pair of new stage names. One of them was Beale Street Blues Boy, which he then changed to Blues Boy King. King eventually chose B.B. to represent the earlier interpretations.
King made his recording debut in 1949 and signed a record deal with RPM Records in 1950. His single “Three O’Clock Blues” became a hit in 1952 and landed on the Billboard charts. King put together his first band and hit the road, touring for the first time across the United States.
Watch B.B. King perform “Three O’Clock Blues” here:
This would be the start of many such long tours for King, who earned a reputation of being one of the hardest working performers of any genre. That tenacity and commitment to performing translated into success on the charts as he amassed a number of top R&B hits.
King shifted labels in the early 1960s and signed with ABC-Paramount. During this period, King kept his steady tour schedule and released a variety of popular projects. In 1968, King made the crossover leap and began playing for large White audiences. For years, King was frustrated by his lack of crossover success but he had finally arrived.
From that point on, King’s star rose to unimaginable heights. Some of his highlights include appearing on popular American late-night shows, “The Tonight Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which helped land him in to the homes of listeners who normally wouldn’t seek his style of music out. In 1969, King etched his first crossover hit “The Thrill Is Gone,” which earned him a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
Watch B.B. King perform “The Thrill Is Gone” here:
Just as famous as King and his burly vocals was his guitar, nicknamed “Lucille.” According to legend, King was playing a show when a fight started between two men and sparked a fire. Before the blaze took the building down, King went back to get his guitar.
King claimed that the men were fighting over a woman named Lucille, and named his guitar such to remind himself to not fight over women or risk his life for any reason ever again.
King recorded 43 studio albums, 16 live albums, and release 138 singles. He won 15 Grammy Awards in total and owns the distinction of having the most honors in the Blues category.
Also unknown to many was that King was a licensed private airplane pilot and even flew himself to his own gigs across the nation. He was ordered away from doing so by his management but still continued to fly until he was 70.
King was entered in to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and later the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In the 1990s, he also opened a chain of restaurants bearing his namesake.
Also in 1990, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006 among countless other honors and awards.
In 2008, the B.B. King Museum was opened in Memphis. Stricken with Type 2 diabetes, the twice-married King was a spokesperson in ads aimed at combating the disease. King finally retired from performing in October 2014 due to health complications. At the top of the month, King entered hospice care in Las Vegas, Nevada, before passing away Thursday (May 14).
See photos of the iconic B.B. King in life here: