B.B. King performing in 2009 with the guitar he named “Lucille”
He was born Riley King near Itta Bena, Mississippi, but as a young man moved to Memphis, and established a reputation as the “Beale Street Blues Boy.” That got shortened to B.B., and before too long, everyone in Memphis, the South, the United States, and then the world over began to love and appreciate the musical genius of B.B. King.
King, who had for years called Las Vegas home, died in his sleep while in hospice care in Nevada. He had suffered in recent years from diabetes.
It’s impossible to sum up the long career of a man who became known as “The King of the Blues,” but over his lifetime King earned more than 15 Grammy awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award), was named by Rolling Stone #6 on a recent list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” was awarded the National Medal of Arts and later the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Yale University. Those are just the highlights.
All this from a musician who was so poor when he began his career that he never cut off the ends of his guitar strings, because if a string broke, he would just use whatever was left over.
On Friday, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton issued this proclamation:
“People who don’t follow national politics are familiar with the name of John Kennedy. Those who know nothing about basketball have at least heard of Michael Jordan. There are certain individuals who are absolutely transcendent — their personalities become bigger than the field in which they are best known. Such is the case with B.B. King. Those who never heard or had the blues knew his name.
We have our own Memphis Music Hall of Fame because this city has been foundational in the careers of icons like Elvis Presley, Al Green, Johnny Cash, and Isaac Hayes to name a few. Even among other musical legends, B.B. King was a giant in terms of his influence.
This loss is particularly hurtful for our city because B.B. and Memphis had a longtime love affair. The fact that Beale Street Blues Boy is the origin of the nickname B.B. is the type of authentic connection that will never die.
It is altogether fitting that we will mark the life of B.B. King on Beale Street this weekend. Some earn titles through elections and others through military conquest. But people all over the world have agreed for many years that B.B. was and will always be the KING OF THE BLUES — a title earned through music and performance, not according to his family name.
We will all miss this American icon. But, B.B. King’s legacy and music will live on.”
For a man who sang the blues, his music sure chased the blues away from his many fans. Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this writing.