B.B. King: Chairman of the Board to generations of musicians

The influence of Riley King, who died in Las Vegas Thursday evening, spanned more than six decades and helped make the electric guitar the nearly de facto instrument for popular music since the 1950s.

Matthew S. Gunby/The Daily Times/AP
Blues legend B.B. King performs at the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center, in Salisbury, Md., in 2007.

In many genres, there are artists who cast their influence over the generations that follow, but few have had such a singular and elegant signature style as B.B. King: that shimmering blues vibrato, a single wailing note on an electric guitar named Lucille.

“The thrill is gone,” the Missisippi-born bluesman famously sang with a ringing guttural confidence, full of both defiance and despair. “I'll still live on, but so lonely I'll be.” And yet, with a cadence akin to the the rhythms of a gospel preacher, he also famously sang, “I don't care if you're young or old, get together, let the good times roll.”

The influence of Riley King, who died in Las Vegas Thursday evening, spanned more than six decades and helped make the electric guitar the nearly de facto instrument for popular music since the 1950s. Winner of 15 Grammys, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, Mr. King has been hailed as one of the most important guitarists in history.

“This morning, I come to you all with a heavy heart,” wrote fellow blues guitarist Buddy Guy, a friend and fellow pioneer of the Chicago style of blues, on his Instagram stream Friday morning. “BB King was the greatest guy I ever met. The tone he got out of that guitar, the way he shook his left wrist, the way he squeezed the strings... man, he came out with that and it was all new to the whole guitar playin' world.”

“He could play so smooth, he didn't have to put on a show,” Mr. Guy continued. “The way BB did it is the way we all do it now. He was my best friend and father to us all.”

Born in 1925, King earned an early living picking cotton for a penny a pound and singing gospel on local street corners. By 1948, he had moved to Memphis, Tenn., driving a tractor and playing the blues in the city’s juke joint scene. Here he met T-Bone Walker, one of the first to play electric blues guitar, a sound King would later say was like “being in heaven.”  

In 1949, during a gig in Twist, Ark., King was performing when two men fought over a woman named Lucille, knocking over a kerosene stove and setting the joint on fire. The place was quickly cleared out, but King rushed back in to retrieve his guitar.

He called every guitar he owned Lucille after that gig. “Lucille is real,” he once wrote, according to Rolling Stone. “When I play her, it's almost like hearing words, and of course, naturally I hear cries. I'd be playing sometimes as I'd play, it seems like it almost has a conversation with me. It tells you something. It communicates with me.”

For the next six decades, King, dubbed “B.B.” for “blues boy,” pioneered a new kind of guitar playing with a tireless schedule of performances. With a powerful, wailing howl and ringing staccato riffs, King’s music climbed the blues charts in the 1950s, and the young guitarist toured dance halls and urban blues clubs throughout the country, playing 342 nights in 1956 and usually no fewer than 200 nights a year for decades thereafter.

In 1968 in rock club in San Francisco, King was shocked to see “long-haired white people” lining up to see him play,” according to The New York Times. “I think they booked us in the wrong place,” he told his manager, before he was introduced to the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the chairman of the board, B.B. King!”

“Everybody stood up, and I cried,” Mr. King said. “That was the beginning of it,” he says of his commercial success.

He was a primary influence on rock legends Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, as well as Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughn and contemporary bluesmen Gary Clark, Jr., and Ben Harper. In 2012, President Obama sang a few lines of “Sweet Home Chicago” with “B.B.” during a White House celebration of the blues that included Guy, Mr. Clark, and Mick Jagger.

“He is without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” Eric Clapton wrote in his 2008 biography, “and the most humble and genuine man you would ever wish to meet.”

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