By the 1960s his fame was global, and his influence was reflected in the songbooks of The Beatles (“I wish I could play the guitar like B.B. King,” said John Lennon), and The Rolling Stones, who asked him to open for part of their 1969 American tour.
He landed on both the R&B and Pop charts simultaneously with “The Thrill is Gone,” a song for which he won a 1970 GRAMMY.
King was a man in demand, performing hundreds of shows every year. He was on TV too, from early in the day (Good Morning America) to late at night (The Tonight Show, from Carson to Leno to Fallon).
Like any prolific artist, one who recorded scores of albums over half a century, King had his critics. In a January 4, 1969 review of his album, Lucile, a Rolling Stone critic wrote, “While I don't like to say it, this is the least interesting King album in quite a while.”
But even this bearish writer couched is words in praise. “Mind you,” he wrote, “it's not really bad and in fact would be more than a respectable effort by anyone of lesser abilities than King's. The thing is, though, B.B.'s at the level where his only realistic competition is himself.”
Blues, like anything worth being passionate about, has its partisans. There are those who will argue that one player is better than another, or that Chicago blues is better than Delta blues but not better than West Coast blues, or maybe the reverse of all that.
Whatever the debate, though, when it comes to B.B. King the only quarrel is whether he’s really great, or really, really great. (Even Rolling Stone argues with itself about whether he’s the 3rd or 6th greatest guitarist in history, having claimed both things to be true.)
King did once sing, “Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin', too.” But that’s just not true. The man is loved, and decorated many times over with more than a dozen GRAMMYs, honorary degrees from Yale and Brown, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a star on Hollywood’s Walk of fame, and, of course, membership in both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Befittingly, there’s a museum with his name on it: The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Mississippi, which is in part a chronicle of his American life, the music he played, and the stories that gave birth to the Delta blues. It’s also a living honor, a cultural hub with a range of classes: watercolors, gardening, and taekwondo, too.
And to prove the point that everyone knows the blues, that anyone can play it (though perhaps not as well as he did), there’s a guitar studio on site for visitors.
B.B. King is gone. He knew this day would come, and he thought about it, too.
“When I do eventually drop, I pray to God that it'll happen in one of three ways,” he said. “Firstly, on stage or leaving the stage, then secondly in my sleep. And the third way? You'll have to figure that out for yourself!”
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