Blues legend B.B. King died Thursday night in Las Vegas. He was 89.
Born on Sept. 16, 1925, Riley B. King was the son of sharecropper parents in Berclair, Mississippi. Growing up African American in the South during the Depression had a profound impact on King and exposed him to the world of gospel music as well as Jim Crow racism.
With the deaths of both of his parents by 1940, King was on his own at the age of 14, left to sharecrop an acre of cotton. Ending the year in debt, it wasn’t until 1941 that King heard “King Biscuit Time,” a radio show out of Arkansas, that King decided to follow his dreams of becoming a musician.
A subsequent stint in the Army, his first marriage and a move to Memphis led King to become a popular DJ, going by the name Beale Street Blues Boy, until eventually shortening it to Blues Boy, which in turn became B.B.
In December 1951, King’s ten-year dream came to fruition with the single “Three O’Clock Blues,” a slow-tempo tune, where the bluesman’s Mississippi wail and guitar picking coalesced into what would become his signature call-and-response style. “Three O’Clock Blues” reach the number one slot on the rhythm and blues chart and stayed there for a solid 15 weeks.
King’s rise to fame also saw the birth of his much-loved guitar Lucille. While playing a show in Twist, Ark., a fire sparked in the crowd. After escaping the building, King realized that he had forgotten his guitar and went back inside, risking his life. He re-emerged unharmed and later found that the fire was caused by two men who knocked over a kerosene heater as they fought over a woman named Lucille.
The Mississippi native won his first Grammy in 1970 for his song “The Thrill is Gone,” which launched a new string of appearances including a performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the debut of an all-blues showcase at Carnegie Hall.
King went on to garner 30 Grammy nominations and 15 wins with his last in 2009 for Best Traditional Blues Album, Is You Is, Or Is You Ain’t (My Baby). A lifetime commitment to music also resulted in an inevitable induction into both the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame and Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.
Of the future of blues music, King told the Associated Press back in 2006 that there were many artists who would continue the blues legacy.
“You’ll maybe miss seeing my face,” he said, “but the music will go on.”