Blues giant B.B. King, dies at age 89

Riley “B.B.” King, unquestionably one of the greatest blues artists of all time, has passed into history, succumbing at age 89 to an on-going illness.  King — who had battled diabetes for two decades — fell ill during an October concert and, diagnosed with dehydration and exhaustion, canceled the final tour of a long, well-celebrated career of more than 60 years.  According to the announcement on his website, King died peacefully in this sleep on May 14  in his Las Vegas home.

B.B. King during a 2009 performance
B.B. King during a 2009 performance

King, a contemporary of such legends as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf, was known around the world for his blistering guitar style and volcanic vocals, as well as a wonderfully cheerful manner. He played a Gibson ES-355, which he made famous, owning roughly a dozen copies of the same model in black and in cherry red, each named “Lucille.”

With a discography listing upwards of 45 albums, his catalog is best known for the 1965 LP Live at the Regal, and the 1970 hit single “The Thrill Is Gone,” on which, ironically, he didn’t play guitar, deferring to a session musician.

King notched 15 Grammy Awards, including, in 1987, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998.  King enjoyed 40 straight years of hitting the Billboard 200 with 33 titles and, for more than a half-century, averaged nearly 300 shows a year.

Born Sept. 16, 1925 in the Mississippi Delta near Itta Bena, King was raised on a cotton farm by his grandmother, Elnora, and picked cotton on a plantation in Indianola, Mississippi. He learned the guitar by studying with historic icons Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson and King’s cousin, Booker “Bukka” White. He eventually recorded as part of a duo with his good friend and soul veteran Bobby “Blue” Bland.

King was a humble man whose demeanor customarily belied his legendary stature.  Indicative of this, in 1995, receiving Kennedy Center Honors from President Bill Clinton, he said, “Anytime the most powerful man in the world takes 10 to 15 minutes to sit and talk with me, an old guy from Indianola, that’s a memory imprinted in my head that forever will be there.”

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403. 

Updated 5/15/2015 2:10 pm