B.B. King, Legendary Blues Guitarist, Dies At 89

May 15, 2015
Originally published on May 15, 2015 12:11 pm

It seemed as if he'd go on forever — and B.B. King was working right up until the end. It's what he loved to do: playing music, and fishing. Even late in life, living with diabetes, he spent about half the year on the road. King died Thursday night at home in Las Vegas. He was 89 years old.

He was born Riley B. King on a plantation in Itta Bena, Miss. He played on street corners before heading to Memphis, Tenn., where he stayed with his cousin, the great country bluesman Bukka White. His career took off thanks to radio; he got a spot on the radio show of Sonny Boy Williamson II, then landed his own slot on black-run WDIA in Memphis. He needed a handle. At first it was Beale Street Blues Boy. Then Blues Boy King. Finally B.B. King stuck.

You can't mention names without talking about his guitar, Lucille. It was actually more than one. The story goes that the first was a $30 acoustic he was playing at a dance in Arkansas when two men got in a fight, kicked over a stove and started a fire. When King was safe outside, he realized he'd left the guitar inside. He ran back into the burning dance hall to save it. After he learned the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he decided to name his guitar for her to remind himself never to get into a fight over a woman. And since then, every one of his trademark Gibson ES-355s has been named Lucille.

The sound he got out of her was what set him apart. Playing high up on the neck, he'd push a string as he picked it, bending the note to make it cry. He didn't burn a lot of fast licks, but you could feel each note he played. Nobody sounded like B.B. King, though later on plenty of rockers tried. (Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green got closest.)

King scored an R&B hit in 1951 with "Three O'Clock Blues" and began the next stage of his life as a touring musician. According to his website, King and his band played 342 one-night stands in 1956. He performed more than 250 nights a year into his 80s, his distinctive guitar sound and smooth vocals filling just about every major venue in the U.S. and abroad. In 1991, he opened his own spot, B.B. King's Blues Club in Memphis. Others followed, and King remained involved in how they were run.

He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in '87. He was so beloved that he received honorary degrees from the Berklee College of Music as well as Yale and Brown universities, among others.

In 1970, he scored a crossover hit with "The Thrill Is Gone." It's the tune everyone knows — classic B.B. King: Lucille's piercing single notes punctuating each phrase.

The thrill is gone.
The thrill is gone away from me.
Although I'll still live on,
But so lonely I'll be.

That pretty well sums up how a lot of fans are feeling right now, now that B.B. King is finally gone.

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Wish this news wasn't true - news that B.B. King is dead. So let's put it this way - Lucille is an orphan.


B.B. KING: (Singing) The thrill is gone. The thrill has gone away.

INSKEEP: Lucille was the name B.B. King gave to his guitars. He died last night in Las Vegas at 89. NPR's Tom Cole has this appreciation.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: B.B. King didn't just sing and play the blues. He was the guy who got it across to a mainstream audience.


KING: I started to feel that I had to be a good entertainer to keep a job. And I'm kind of happy that I developed in my head that I'm never any better than my last concert or my last time I played, so it's like an audition each time.

COLE: That's King on WHYY's Fresh Air in 1996. Humility was his hallmark. It likely came from his upbringing on a Mississippi plantation.


KING: When I was about 7, I chopped cotton. I picked cotton. I helped to plant it. I did everything that the grown-ups do.

COLE: When he wasn't doing that, a little later on he was playing on street corners - blues and gospel - as he told me sitting in his tour bus in 2002.


KING: People that would request a gospel song would always praise me. They'd say, son, you're good. You sound good. But they didn't ever put anything in the hat (laughter). Well, I had people that would ask me to sing the blues would praise me, pat me on the head and they'd always put something in the hat.

COLE: That sealed it - blues was the way to go.


KING: (Singing) Well now, it's 3 o'clock in the morning and I can't even close my eyes. It's 3 o'clock in the morning, baby. I can't even close my eyes.

COLE: King credited his ability to reach an audience in part to radio. He made his way to Memphis where he landed his own show on WDIA, the first well-known station in the country with an all-black format. He needed an on-air handle. His given name, Riley B. King, became Blues Boy King and finally B.B. His show let him showcase his wide-ranging tastes.


KING: I was crazy about Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, and I loved Louis Jordan. The station was integrated all the time from the time I went there, so I was allowed to play anything I wanted to.

COLE: Those sounds made their way into his own music. His smooth vocals were punctuated by the piercing high notes from his guitar Lucille, a signature you can hear in his straight-up blues and his Louis Jordan swing.


KING: (Singing) Caldonia, Caldonia, what made your big head so hard? I love you. I love you just the same. I'm crazy about you, baby, 'cause Caldonia is your name.

COLE: King's interests extended beyond music, sparked in part by his world tours, as professor William Ferris told NPR in 2002. Ferris founded The Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi and got his friend King to donate his record and book collection.


WILLIAM FERRIS: What was perhaps most interesting were records on language because when he travels he tries to learn at least a little of the language of the country in which he's traveling. So you see an artist constantly reaching out, constantly learning and broadening his own horizon.

COLE: Even late in life, B.B. King spent close to half the year on the road. He took an active role overseeing his own blues clubs. It was a work ethic instilled from childhood and driven by need. He was committed to paying his band well. He had a large family to support and he wanted to make sure his music was out there.


KING: I felt that it was a necessity. I needed to do that to keep the blues alive for a long, long time. So if I'm pretty good at doing what I'm doing then when I go from city to city, people find out that B.B. King is still alive and well and so is the music.

COLE: And thanks to his ability to communicate that passion, and a lot of hard work, B.B. King's music is alive and well. Tom Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.