Support Intelligent, In-Depth, Trustworthy Journalism.
Blues legend B.B. King has died at age 89. The singer continued to perform until last October, averaging more than 300 performances a year for six decades. Jeffrey Brown, who once joined King on his tour bus, and remembers the life and legacy of the Grammy award-winning musician.
Next tonight: remembering blues legend B.B. King.
He died overnight in Las Vegas, following several weeks in hospice care. He'd continued to perform until last October, when he canceled a tour, citing complications from diabetes.
Jeffrey Brown has our tribute.
The song, "The Thrill Is Gone," the voice and the guitar playing unmistakably belonging to the man who brought the blues to a mass audience, B.B. King.
For more than six decades, often averaging more than 300 performances a year, King was one of the most beloved and respected musicians in the world. Playing his trademark Gibson guitar, which he named Lucille, he created a style and sound all his own.
I got a chance to join King on the road, literally on his bus, in 2005.
People think that because you sing the blues, you're, my God — but all our wives don't leave. We are just like everybody else. We're people. And to me, blues is life, has to do with people, places and things. And as long as we live and there are people, we will have blues.
Today, praise came in from all over for the man and his music.
I just wanted to express my sadness and to say thank you to my dear friend B.B. King. He was a beacon for all of us who love this kind of music, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.
He was born Riley King near Indianola, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of blues music. His mother died when he was 9, and King worked in the cotton fields before turning to music.
Gospel was his first love, but on the streets of Indianola, he told me he learned a valuable lesson about life as a musician.
I would sit on the street corner and just start singing gospel songs, because that's what I wanted to do. And, generally, people would come by me, and they would — you know, they would praise me, pat me on the shoulders and the head, and say, keep it up, son. If you continue, you're going to be good one day. But they didn't put nothing in the hat.
But people that would come by and ask me to play a blues would always put something in the hat. Now you know why I'm a blues singer.
In the late 1940s, at the age of 23, King made his way to Memphis. There, he worked as a disk jockey on a local black radio station, and became known as Blues Boy, later shortened to B.B.
He continued to perform and had his first hit in 1951 with the single "3 O'Clock Blues." Others hits followed, and King went on the road, playing primarily for black audiences until the 1960s.
King biographer Charles Sawyer.
CHARLES SAWYER, B.B. King Biographer:
There was a change in our popular culture which brought blues to the foreground, through a combination of British rock musicians who loved the blues and brought it back to America, and a handful of American blues musicians, white musicians, principally from Chicago, who brought the blues to Middle America.
And they were all saying the same thing. The master of this form is B.B. King. And people scratched their head. Who's this B.B. King? We have to hear this B.B. King.
The Rolling Stones included King on their 1969 American tour, bringing the blues musician to new audiences. He went on to collaborate and perform with a host of other stars, including the band U2 and fellow electric guitar master Eric Clapton.
In an interview several years ago, singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt spoke of King.
BONNIE RAITT, Musician:
His expressiveness, I think, both as a vocalist, but especially on his guitar, the way that he plays, the way that he bends notes and makes it cry and ache, and the frustration that he's expressing or the longing or the sexual yearning, all that comes across in this one block of beautiful wood through this incredible man.
King earned 15 Grammys over the course of his career, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
And during that trip to Indianola in 2005, he helped break ground for the B.B. King Museum, which opened three years later. In 2006, George W. Bush awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:
He's influenced generations of musicians from blues to rock, and he's performed in venues from roadside nightclubs to Carnegie Hall. He's still touring, and he's still recording, and he's still singing, and he's still playing the blues better than anybody else. In other words, the thrill is not gone.
Indeed, King also never stopped advocating for his music. I watched him give a master class to group of young would-be players.
If he's a guitar player and he plays like B.B. King, I don't need B.B. King. I am B.B. King.
If he's an Eric Clapton, I don't need Eric. Eric and I are friends. If I want Eric, I will go get him. And it's the same thing with either instrument. We all have idols. I don't frown on idols, because all of us need idols. But you want to become yourself. Be yourself.
In his later years, diabetes slowed King and forced him to perform seated.
But he continued to tour and perform regularly, including late into the night at the club Ebony in his hometown.
I can play music every day and never get tired of it. But if my health should get bad and I can't handle myself very well, or people don't come to my concerts, I probably would retire.
But other than that, we don't use that word around here. The R-word, we forget it.
I just want to keep on. And I know in time that I will have to go. But, God, let me let — let me enjoy while I'm living. And I do enjoy doing what I do.
B.B. King died last night. He was 89 years old.
Watch the Full Episode
Support Provided By:
Support PBS NewsHour:
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.