Friday, May 15, 2015

Obituary: B.B. King, the Last Bluesman

As I was going to bed last night, I had heard the news that celebrated blues guitarist B.B. King, 89, had passed away after years of battling diabetes. He lived in Las Vegas for many years.

King was known for his guitar playing, which wasn't that flashy, but it was still awesome all the same.

He was part of the generation of great electric guitar bluesmen who became notable after World War II and included such greats as Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), Howlin' Wolf (Chester Burnett), John Lee Hooker, Aaron "T-Bone" Walker (probably my favorite of the bunch now), Albert King, and many others, with B.B. (born Riley B. King in 1925) probably the youngest of that group. And because King had the longer career, being active until nearly the end of his life, he was the best known blues guitarist of all.

I am not looking at any obituary, but I believe B.B. King and Albert King were born in the same town, Indianola, Mississippi, but the two were not related. B.B.'s father, coincidentally, was named Albert.

B.B., as I noted in this blog post, and also noted in the linked obituary, was married twice and had fifteen children by fifteen different women. Eleven of them survive him. He was on good terms with all of the children.

His guitar playing was intact even well into old age and despite suffering from diabetes. He was quite a talker, as a I remember having seen him play eight years ago in Reno.

Riley B. King (the middle initial apparently did not stand for anything) was born on Sept. 16, 1925, to Albert and Nora Ella King, both sharecroppers, in Berclair, a Mississippi hamlet outside the small town of Itta Bena. His memories of the Depression included the sound of sanctified gospel music, the scratch of 78-r.p.m. blues records, the sweat of dawn-to-dusk work and the sight of a black man lynched by a white mob.

By early 1940 Mr. King’s mother was dead and his father was gone. He was 14 and on his own, “sharecropping an acre of cotton, living on a borrowed allowance of $2.50 a month,” wrote Dick Waterman, a blues scholar. “When the crop was harvested, Riley ended his first year of independence owing his landlord $7.54.”

In November 1941 came a revelation: “King Biscuit Time” went on the air, broadcasting on KFFA, a radio station in Helena, Ark. It was the first radio show to feature the Mississippi Delta blues, and young Riley King heard it on his lunch break at the plantation. A largely self-taught guitarist, he now knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a musician on the air.

Here is a concert he gave in 1983:

Here is another obituary, this one from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

We will never see his like again.

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