Playing the blues took guitarist from a plantation to a mansion
16-9-1925 – 14-5-2015
King married country blues to big-city rhythms and created a sound instantly recognisable to millions: a stinging guitar with a shimmering vibrato, notes that coiled and leapt like an animal and a voice that groaned and bent with the weight of lust, longing and lost love. Many of the songs he sang – such as his biggest hit, The Thrill Is Gone – were poems of pain and perseverance.
B.B. stood for Blues Boy, a name he took with his first taste of fame in the 1940s. His peers were bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, whose nicknames reflected their hard-bitten lives. But he was born a King, albeit in a shack surrounded by poor sharecroppers and wealthy landowners.
King went out on the road and never came back after one of his first recordings reached the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts in 1951. He began in juke joints, country dance halls and ghetto nightclubs, playing 342 one-night stands in 1956 and 200 to 300 shows a year for a half-century thereafter, rising to concert halls, casino main stages and international acclaim.
By his 80th birthday he was a millionaire many times over. He owned a mansion in Las Vegas, a closet full of embroidered tuxedos and smoking jackets, a chain of nightclubs bearing his name and the personal and professional satisfaction of having endured. Through it all he remained with the great love of his life, his guitar. He told the tale a thousand times: he was playing a dance hall in Twist, Arkansas, in the early 1950s when two men got into a fight and knocked over a kerosene stove. King fled the fire – and then remembered his $30 guitar. He ran into the burning building to rescue it. He learned later that the fight had been about a woman named Lucille. For the rest of his life, King addressed his guitars – big Gibsons, curved like a woman's hips – as Lucille.
He married twice, unsuccessfully, and was legally single from 1966 onward; by his own account he fathered 15 children with 15 women. But a Lucille was always at his side.
Riley B. King (the middle initial apparently did not stand for anything) was born to Albert and Nora Ella King, sharecroppers in Berclair, Mississippi, a hamlet outside the small town of Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta. His memories of the Depression included the sound of gospel music, the scratch of 78rpm blues records, the sweat of dawn-to-dusk work and the sight of a black man lynched by a white mob.
By early 1940 King's mother was dead and his father was gone. He was 14 and on his own, "sharecropping an acre of cotton, living on a borrowed allowance of $2.50 a month," wrote Dick Waterman, a blues scholar. "When the crop was harvested, Riley ended his first year of independence owing his landlord $7.54."
In November 1941 came a revelation: King Biscuit Time went on the air, broadcasting on a radio station in Helena, Arkansas. It was the first radio show to feature the Mississippi Delta blues, and Riley heard it on his lunch break at the plantation. A largely self-taught guitarist, he now knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a musician.
The King Biscuit show featured Rice Miller, one of two bluesmen who worked under the name Sonny Boy Williamson. After serving in the Army and marrying his first wife, Martha Denton, King, then 22, went to seek him out in Memphis, looking for work. Miller had two performances booked that night, and handed the lower-paying nightclub job to King. It paid $12.50. King had been making about $5 a day on the plantation and never returned to his tractor.
He was a hit and quickly became a popular disc jockey playing the blues on Memphis radio station WDIA. On the air, King was nicknamed the Beale Street Blues Boy. That became Blues Boy, which became B.B. In December 1951, two years after arriving in Memphis, King released a single, Three O'Clock Blues, which topped the rhythm-and-blues charts for 15 weeks.
He began a tour of the biggest stages a bluesman could play: the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Howard Theater in Washington, the Royal Theater in Baltimore. When Martha divorced him after eight years, he was playing 275 one-night stands a year.
King's second marriage, to Sue Hall, ended in divorce in 1966. He responded in 1969 with his best-known recording, The Thrill Is Gone, about having loved and lost. King is survived by 11 children.
New York Times