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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Obituary: BB King

Obituary: BB King

The master of the 'quivering vibrato', and one of the world's greatest blues musicians, dies at 89

King inspired countless blues and rock guitarists. Photo: McDonald/Getty ImagesPremium
King inspired countless blues and rock guitarists. Photo: McDonald/Getty Images

With the death of B.B. King at the age of 89, the curtain falls on the career of one of the greatest and most influential blues musicians ever. Possessing one of the most instantly recognizable guitar styles, largely due to his distinctive left-hand vibrato technique, King inspired countless blues and rock guitarists.

King’s is arguably one of the few happy endings in the world of blues music. While many blues legends died in obscurity, denied the fame and fortune they richly deserved, he came to be known as the “king of the blues". Starting as a farmhand working the cotton fields in his native Mississippi, he cut through racial and cultural barriers to be loved and admired by millions across the globe.

Born on 16 September 1925, on a cotton plantation near the town of Itta Bena, Mississippi, he was christened Riley. Holding the reins of a mule, working the plough from the age of 9, King found solace in music like many of his ilk. Singing in a gospel choir in his local church, he got his first guitar when he was 12. His musical hero was Blind Lemon Jefferson, arguably the first great blues guitarist, who had a brief, flourishing career in the 1920s.

Like many black people living in the Deep South, he made the journey to the big city in the early 1940s, arriving in Memphis, Tennessee. He lived with his cousin, the well-known Delta blues guitarist Bukka White. By 1948, he was performing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio programme. As his popularity increased, he was granted his own radio spot on the Memphis radio station, WDIA. Working as a singer and disc jockey, he became known by the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy", which became “Blues Boy" and was finally shortened to “BB".

Eschewing the harsh rhythmic style of the Delta bluesmen of the 1920s and 1930s (like White), King preferred the more melodic, electric blues of T-Bone Walker. Also inspired by the swing and jazz sounds of guitarists Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, King successfully incorporated the stylistic elements of horn players into his guitar-playing. One should not forget his soulful vocals, by turns gritty and honey-smooth, which he often used in a call and response manner, answering his guitar lines. But his lasting influence on later guitarists was his use of string bending and the quivering vibrato, which he called “the butterfly", on his trademark Gibson ES-355 guitar, fondly named “Lucille".

For someone who claimed to have “stupid fingers" and confessed that he could not play the guitar while singing, his followers read like a who’s who of modern rock music—Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name a few.

King’s first hit was 3 O’Clock Blues (1952). Over the next decade, he produced most of the songs that would form the backbone of his live shows for the next 50 years: Woke Up This Morning, Please Love Me, When My Heart Beats like a Hammer, Whole Lotta Love, Every Day I Have the Blues, Ten Long Years and Sweet Little Angel. His most recognizable hit, The Thrill Is Gone, came from his 1964 album, Live At The Regal, recorded in Chicago.

Playing the “chitlin’ circuit" to segregated black audiences in the 1950s, the British blues boom of the 1960s opened the doors to white blues fans. Always generous about other styles of music, King regularly acknowledged his gratitude to white musicians such as Eric Clapton for his unprecedented rise as the “king of the blues". The winner of 15 Grammy Awards, King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980; in 1987, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1990, King had been hospitalized twice recently and had had to cancel some tour dates. The last of the great bluesmen from an era before the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, he died at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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Updated: 15 May 2015, 04:57 PM IST
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