By Shane Nicholson
Blues legend BB King passed away last night at his home in Las Vegas. He was 89.
King had spent the past two weeks in home hospice care due to complication from his diabetes following a year of declining health. His daughter confirmed his death to CNN late Thursday night.
King was born Riley B. King on a cotton plantation near Itta Bena, Mississippi in 1925. The son of sharecroppers, he purchased his first guitar for $15 before following his mother’s cousin Bukka White to Memphis, Tennessee in 1946, his first foray into the music industry.
It wasn’t until performing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s KWEM West Memphis radio program in 1948 that King began developing an audience following a meeting with T Bone Walker.
“Once I’d heard him for the first time, I knew I’d have to have [an electric guitar] myself,” King said later. “Had to have one, short of stealing!”
At the time, he worked primarily as a disc jockey and house singer for WDIA. What followed was a nearly 70 year career culminating in 15 Grammy Awards and countless guitarists left in the wake of his influence.
“This morning, I come to you all with a heavy heart,” said Chicago-based guitarist Buddy Guy on Instagram.
“BB King was the greatest guy I ever met. The tone he got out of that guitar, the way he shook his left wrist, the way he squeezed the strings… man, he came out with that and it was all new to the whole guitar playin’ world. He could play so smooth, he didn’t have to put on a show. The way BB did it is the way we all do it now. He was my best friend and father to us all.
“I’ll miss you, B. I love you and I promise I will keep these damn Blues alive. Rest well.”
While he laid down his earliest recordings with a Fender Telecaster model, King was most known for his Gibson ES-355s which he called “Lucille.”
Following two men having started a fire by knocking over a kerosene lamp during a fight at an Arkansas club in the 1950s, King rushed back into the building to rescue his guitar.
He named the instrument and all of his subsequent guitars “Lucille” as a reminder to “never do a thing like that again.”
“People all over the world have problems,” King said in “Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music.”
“And as long as people have problems, the blues can never die.”