B.B. King was a pioneer into the very soul of the blues. He reinvented the blues, he brought the blues to the masses through the very many eras of the blues. Throughout the course of his 70-plus year career, the guitarist and singer proved over and over that his was an artform birthed for change. Blues flourished inside the thousands of notes King played on a six-string and sung with his spirited, rich, bassy voice.
“The blues was bleeding the same blood as me,” King said in his autobiography “Blues All Around Me.”
The King of the Blues died in Las Vegas on Thursday (May 14) at the age of 89. According to the AP, King’s attorney, Brent Bryson, said King died peacefully in his sleep at 9:40 p.m. PDT, and that funeral arrangements underway. Over this past year, King suffered increasingly from diabetes and had canceled remaining tour dates to his most recent tour leg due to declining health.
His passing arrived after a lifetime of recording more than 50 albums, having performed with some of the greatest musicians – Hendrix, Clapton, Richards, Rush – axe slingers who idolized the Southern-bred King in turn. King played to millions of fans all over the world during his thousands of concerts, and an unknown quantity of what I can only imagine as some of the greatest unscheduled jams on the planet.
I managed to see King twice, the last time in the late ‘00s to a small crowd gathered outdoors, on a low-sitting stage. From what I remember he hit his best-known songs – “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Rock Me Baby” – but mostly the impression I walked away with was how much he laughed during his set. With his able backing members, his Gibson glued to his open thigh on a modest chair, the multi-Grammy Award winning grinner would frequently turn his head and laugh, make small talk to his sidemen, a walk in the park.
Riley B. King may have sung sad songs, but it didn’t keep him from bringing them utterly to life, and with expert swagger and -- just as a King favorite Louis Jordan tune says -- “good times”: “You only live but once / and when you're dead you're done /so let the good times roll.”