The Reign of B.B. King, a Blues Icon

by Josh Tager 5:50 AM PDT, May 15, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

“In 1925, on a hot sticky Wednesday in the middle of September, the cries of a newborn baby rang out from a sharecropper’s cabin over the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. A boy was born that day who was going to make a difference. His name, Riley B. King.”

--Morgan Freeman, narrating the eponymous documentary, B.B. King: The Life of Riley.

B.B. King, he made a difference. He changed music, blues, rock and roll, R&B too, all while impressing the work of countless musicians, across genres and continents. He also changed America, upending racist mores on the radio and everywhere he played.

This extraordinary bluesman who sang and who could make his guitars sing too -- the Ambassador of Blues and the Mayor of Bluesville -- has died on Thursday, May 14, 2015. He was 89 years old.

Early on he played for dimes on small-town street corners, sometimes playing four towns a night, and he sang in his church’s gospel choir. To make ends meet he drove a tractor on a plantation, a job he said he liked, though that changed the day he crashed it and ran.

“I never did stop running,” he said, recounting that day, “and that’s the first time I went to Memphis because I was scared half to death.” He did go back half a year later to work off the debt, but his farming days were done: B.B. King was making his living making music.

He played shows, played on the radio, and first made the Billboard R&B charts in 1952 with “3 O’Clock Blues,” a sad, slow song about not being able to sleep, a song that introduced him to a national audience.

But this was mid-twentieth century America. It was a nation divided; segregated. Black musicians played in black clubs, their records played on black-only stations. Misanthropic bigots of the era sought to deny the African American experience, to suppress it, but a steadfast King made himself heard. Everyone was listening.

‘The racists couldn’t legislate musical taste,” King once said, as noted in Race, Rock and Elvis, a book that explores the relationship between music and social change in the post-World War II South. “And along with this music, these white kids were hearing and feeling the souls of black people. They were getting to know us and like us and appreciate our talent.”

Photo: Getty Images

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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