He was Beale Street Blues Boy King. Born on the sharecropped fields of Mississipi, making his way through the beating streets of Memphis in the 1940s. He taught himself to play guitar, nearly died rescuing his guitar from a burning building and then named it Lucille.
He played over seven decades, sold millions of records, performed in more than 15,000 concerts, won 15 Grammys. He was B.B. King, King of the Blues, who unhooked the blues sound from the Deep South, from the genre itself, and made it something universal. “People all over the world have problems,” he once said, “And as long as people have problems, the blues can never die.” Now the world has a problem. B.B. King is gone.
You’d know a B.B. King song by that voice, harsh with longing, the single-note vibrato of the electric guitar, and a kind of conversation between singer and instrument. The lyrics would be dark and wry — the insomniac thinking of his lost love in “Three O’Clock Blues”, the “Blues Man” who insists “good things come to those who wait”, the thwarted bully in “Paying the Cost to be the Boss”.
Growing up, King was influenced by blues men such as T-Bone Walker and Lonnie Johnson, the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt, the swelling big band notes of Count Basie. Even after the blues had apparently gone out of style, he would be influencing musicians like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix. It was largely through King that the blues sound reached white rock audiences and then beyond.
But for all his wandering, there would remain in B.B. King a keen, specific grief. Explaining himself in “Why I Sing the Blues”, he delved into the experiences of being a black American — memories of slave ships, the squalor of ghettos, the trauma of segregation. These were the blues he really sang. Music shot through with this inconsolable grief will take a long time to die.