One of the last great Mississippi bluesmen, Riley B. King, is gone, passed away last night at the age of 89. King made perhaps the most successful crossover of any blues artist into mainstream rock and roll, recording with Clapton and playing for rock audiences for decades. But his sound remained rooted firmly in the very blues he cut his teeth on in the fields of the Mississippi Delta and in Memphis, where he hitchhiked at 22, with $3 in his pocket, and quickly became a hit as a songwriter and D.J. called the Beale Street Blues Boy—B.B. for short. He “was paid four cents,” writes Buzzfeed, “for every album he made.”
“By his 80th birthday,” writes The New York Times, “he was a millionaire many times over. He owned a mansion in Las Vegas, a closet full of embroidered tuxedoes and smoking jackets, a chain of nightclubs…and the personal and professional satisfaction of having endured.” King’s signature guitars, customized Gibson 355s he named Lucille, are as elegant and stylish as the man himself. I once stood in front of one of them in a glass case at the Stax museum in Memphis, staring in awe, examining the places where his hands had worn into the wood, trying to absorb a little of the magic. King’s story is one of success far beyond what most of his peers could imagine. But it is also one of profound dedication to the blues, and of overcoming racism, poverty, and pain—suffering he channeled into his music and never lost sight of through the wealth and fame.
Well-deserved tributes from fans and fellow musicians are everywhere today—to King’s personal warmth and charm, to his impassioned singing, and, of course, his incredibly expressive vibrato guitar playing. “The tone he got out of that guitar, the way he shook his left wrist, the way he squeezed the strings,” says guitarist Buddy Guy, “… man, he came out with that and it was all new to the whole guitar playin’ world. The way BB did it is the way we all do it now. He was my friend and father to us all.” See and hear B.B. do it above in live performances of “The Thrill is Gone” and “Blues Boys Tune.” And just above, see him play and tell his story in a short 1972 documentary called “Sounding Out.” It may be too late now to see the great man perform live, but it’s never to late to learn about his legacy as the undisputed “king of the blues.”