Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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The Thrill Is Gone – BB King R.I.P.

BB King
BB King BB King BB King BB King

BB King, the very last of the living blues legends and a true originator, has died at the age of 89. He passed away at 9.40pm US time in his sleep at his Las Vegas home on Thursday (14th May.)

He had been in hospice care at his home for some days after previous recent spells of hospitalisation for dehydration, high blood pressure, a suspected mild heart attack and other complications from diabetes.

He had cancelled tour dates due to ill health in 2014, after falling ill following an October 3rd show at Chicago's House of Blues. Back then he had eight gigs left on his tour, including shows at his own B.B. King Blues Club in New York.

At the time, a statement on his official website read: "BB King was immediately evaluated by a doctor and diagnosed with dehydration and suffering from exhaustion, whereby causing the eight remaining shows of his current tour to be cancelled."

In April last year, he gave an erratic performance in St. Louis, which prompted complaints from fans and a statement apologising following the gig. "The combination of the rigors of the very long drive and high blood sugar due to his medication error resulted in a performance that did not match Mr. King’s usual standard of excellence," the official statement read. BB King suffered from Type II diabetes, a condition he lived with for more than 25 years.

Earlier this month (May) BB’s business manager Laverne Toney said: 'Mr. King is where he wishes to be. He's always told me he doesn't want to be in a hospital. He wants to be at home.' A message on his Official Facebook page said: 'A Message From B.B. "I am in home hospice care at my residence in Las Vegas. Thanks to all for your well wishes and prayers."

Former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman said BB was one of the giants of the last century. Blues star Buddy Guy posted this message on his Facebook page: “This morning, I come to you all with a heavy heart. 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. All my love, Buddy.“

Eric Clapton posted a touching video to his Facebook page, and said: “BB King a dear friend and inspiration to me....I want to thank you for all the inspiration and encouragement you gave me." "He was a beacon for all of us."

British guitar great Albert Lee told me: "I'm very sad to hear of the passing of BB King. He took the blues genre and made it his own. There have been many who followed him but he set the standard by which all will be judged. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I was lucky enough to appear on some of Eric Clapton's Crossroads festivals with him. Everyone who knew him says that he was the kindest man. RIP."

Joe Bonamassa: “God bless you BB... Rest in peace my friend. Thank you for all that you did for this kid and so many others. An extremely sad day to say the least.” BB King gave Joe his big break as a youngster and took him on a US tour with him as the opening act, as well as inviting him on stage to jam with him, citing him as the future of the blues.

Bassist Nathan East said: “With a heavy heart I say goodbye to our beloved friend BB King. Thank you BB for your invaluable contribution to the world of music. Rest in Peace...” Joan Armatrading: “Even if you are not into the blues you would have heard of BB King, and you don't have to be into the blues to know that his passing is a great loss to music. RIP BB King.” US producer and songwriter Jon Tiven had several of his songs recorded by BB and produced the blues giant twice. "R.I.P. B.B. King. I was fortunate to produce him on two occasions, after the second he had me back to his crib for dinner. A good friend. The Blues will never be the same."

Actor and blues musician Huge Laurie: “What a great loss, let the sad times roll.” Lenny Kravitz: “BB, anyone could play a thousand notes and never say what you said in one.” Ringo Starr said: “"God bless BB King peace and love to his family." Singer Kelly Clarkson said: “When I heard B.B. King for the first time he was singing The Thrill Is Gone. The way he played & sang brought tears to my eyes.”

BB toured constantly until the end of 2014 and recorded 42 studio albums. His seven-decade career featured a performance at Glastonbury Music Festival and The White House, and included up to 342 shows per year.

Born Riley B. King – the middle initial apparently doesn’t stand for anything - on Sept. 16, 1925, in Itta Bena, Mississippi on a cotton plantation, to Albert Lee King and Nora Ella (Farr) King, who were sharecroppers. They separated when BB was four and his mother died when he was nine. He lived alone for some years until moving back in with his father.

He became known as “B.B.” during the late 1940s, when he was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy as a young Memphis DJ.

He got his first guitar at the age of 12, a present from his father at a cost of $12. He sang in a gospel group and on street corners.

His introduction to the blues came via his cousin, legendary blues singer and guitarist Bukka White. He was glued to the gramophone when records by Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson were being played, and peeping through a hole in the wall of a nightclub in the nearby town of Indianola to hear visiting performers such as Louis Jordan.

He left school early and worked on a farm, getting an exemption from military service in WWII. He was married at 18, ending in divorce, as did a second marriage. He fathered 15 children by 15 different women, but both marriages were childless. He provided financial support for all of his children and never contested paternity.

After the war he moved to Memphis, about 130 miles north of his home in the country. He cut his first record in 1949 and got his first hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” in 1951. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. That same year, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. George H.W. Bush presented him with a Presidential Medal of the Arts, in 1990. He was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1995 and in 2006 was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center opened in 2008 in the Indianola cotton mill where BB once worked.

His unique sound on his famous Lucille guitar, and his soulful, full-throated vocals made him an international music icon and the most commercially successful performer in blues history.

His lawyer, Attorney Brent Bryson said King died peacefully in his sleep at 9:40 p.m. PDT at his Clark County, Nevada home in Las Vegas. His youngest daughter, Claudette King, issued a brief heartfelt statement on her Facebook page: “It is with great sadness that we relay on that Blues legend BB King has died in Las Vegas at the age of 89. The Family thanks you in advance for your condolences during this very delicate time and asks that all respect their privacy. Please remember him in your heart.”

BB King was a winner of 15 Grammy Awards, the most of any blues artist. His theme tune, and always the last song in his live set: “The Thrill Is Gone,” was his sole mainstream chart hit single, back in 1970, but he had many RnB chart hits. Staples of his set list included “Everyday I Have the Blues,” “Rock Me Baby,” “You Better Not Look Down,” and “Hummingbird,” which he had recorded with Carol King.

BB King probably influenced more guitarists than any other blues man. He was able to say in one note what most other players took a whole bunch of notes to say. Eric Clapton recorded a double-platinum hit album “Riding With The King,” with BB and was a huge admirer of his playing. “I don’t think there’s a better blues guitarist in the world,” he said. BB joined Irish rockers U2 on “When Love Comes to Town,” in the late 1980s.

His guitar, christened Lucille, got its name in 1949 when BB King was performing in a roadhouse bar and a fight broke out. A kerosene burner was knocked over and the building was set on fire. BB ran through the flames to rescue his precious guitar and heard someone say the fight was over a girl called Lucille. There have been at least 17 different Lucille guitars in BB’s life. For years he played a Gibson ES355 TDV model and then some years back Gibson made the BB King signature Lucille model, which he played from then on. They made a limited edition special model for his 80th birthday.

During his show, he would talk about why he named his guitar Lucille, and recall dashing back into the fire and risking his own life, as he was so broke and needed to save that guitar to be able to work. BB would tell his audience: “That guitar always reminded me you can always get another guitar, but you can’t get another BB King.”

Back in the 50s and 60s, he was playing over 300 one nighters a year, and even in his 70s and 80s he averaged at least 250 appearances a year. In 2004 he said he had missed just 18 days of playing in 57 years. From his start on the “chitlin circuit,” BB became the first bluesman to perform on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show on national US television in 1970. He endorsed many products and became a big commercial success as a businessman, including opening a chain of BB King’s blues clubs across the USA. “BB King: The Life Of Riley,” the film of BB’s life and career was released in cinemas and on DVD in October 2012, directed and produced by British film maker Jon Brewer, and narrated by actor Morgan Freeman. It was recently shown on BBC television here in the UK. Jon paid tribute to BB, on the news of his passing: "Our hearts are broken by the loss of BB King, and our condolences go out to his family and dedicated team. He was an outstanding man and musician. During the making of our film and my personal involvement with B, I learnt so much of his kindness, generosity and sincerity as a human being and I am honoured to have been able to bring this talented man’s story to the world. His passing is truly a great loss for the music industry.” Morgan Freeman paid tribute to BB on news of his death: "Needless to say, BB was the greatest blues icon on the planet. He kept us rocking and rolling throughout a seventy year career. His passing has created a hole in the universe."

From The White House - President Obama had the following to say on the passing of American icon B.B. King: "The blues has lost its king, and America has lost a legend. B.B. King was born a sharecropper’s son in Mississippi, came of age in Memphis, Tennessee, and became the ambassador who brought his all-American music to his country and the world. No one worked harder than B.B. No one inspired more up-and-coming artists. No one did more to spread the gospel of the blues.

"Three years ago, Michelle and I hosted a blues concert at the White House. I hadn’t expected that I’d be talked into singing a few lines of “Sweet Home Chicago” with B.B. by the end of the night, but that was the kind of effect his music had, and still does. He gets stuck in your head, he gets you moving, he gets you doing the things you probably shouldn’t do – but will always be glad you did. B.B. may be gone, but that thrill will be with us forever. And there’s going to be one killer blues session in heaven tonight."

Jimmie Vaughan, Fabulous Thunderbird and brother of Steve Ray Vaughan said, "heaven done called the head blues stringer back home." He added: "It's raining here in Texas. The sky is crying. B.B. you were the greatest blues guitar player, you wrote the book and it's been that way since the first time I heard you. There will never be another like you. You were so kind and thoughtful. We'll miss you everyday."

BB was a qualified private pilot, learning to fly in 1963. He often flew himself to his concerts, but under the advice of his insurance company and his manager in 1995, he was asked to fly only with another pilot. He stopped flying at the age of 70.

• I worked with BB King (as a photographer and journalist) many times over a period of almost four decades. The first time was in 1978 at the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park, London. A mighty presence on that big stage in his white suit and clutching Lucille to his chest. The final time was at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 2004. By then he had to sit down for his entire set, as his legs were not strong enough for him to stand like he used to. He still did a three+ hour set! Joined on stage by an array of special guest stars, including Cornell Dupree and Dr John.

I was given a seat about 10 feet from BB actually on the stage, to watch the entire set. The artist I managed at that time, US soul singer Earl Thomas had opened for BB that night with his band, and it was arranged for him to make a second appearance; this time guesting with BB and his band, singing on one song while BB played guitar. BB was so taken with Earl’s voice and stage presence; he invited him to stay on stage for the rest of the set! He sang many songs with BB and his band, and a star-studded guest list. It was a sensational night. After the show, the stage cleared and BB sat while fans flocked to the front of the stage to tell him how wonderful he was. He waved and sat there for a good 15 minutes, while security tried to clear the huge auditorium. He then got up to walk back stage, very unsteady on his feet. I automatically gave him a steadying hand and he took my arm and I walked him slowly off the stage, down the ramp and through the corridors backstage.

We had a good chat about his touring, his love of the life he lead, how he HAD to sing and play and that was what he lived for. I recalled several of the shows I had shot pictures of him at, and how honoured I was to have had that opportunity, and to meet him several times, including that very night. He remembered the Rainbow show in ’78 and who was in his band, and the outdoors show in Leicester in 2001.

We got backstage and there was a crowd of crew and other artists applauding him and asking to have photos taken with him. I took a few of him posing with Cornell Dupree, legendary jazz pianist Les McCann (telling dirty jokes to BB!) and others. Then myself and his manager walked him into his dressing room. As the door was closing and I said goodbye, he called me in, reached out and grabbed my hand, and placed in it his plectrum – which has his name on it – and a metal Lucille / BB King guitar lapel pin badge. Thanking me for my kindness in helping him, telling me he wanted me to send my photos to his people for him to see and saying how good he thought the artist I managed was. I treasure those items he gave me. I also still have the official tour jacket from the 2001 UK tour which I shot pix on. And of course, lots and lots of photos of the great man in action and backstage, from 1978 to 2004.

His music and those wonderful memories live on for ever. The photographs are a treasured archive of a real King. The thrill is gone. The King is gone. Long live the King…

• Respected Leicester-based blues guitarist and singer Geoff Overon is a huge BB King fan and collector, and has seen the man live on stage circa 25 times, in the UK and several times at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He paid tribute to the late and great bluesman, citing BB’s invention of the vibrato on the guitar strings as a major legacy he will leave behind.

“He was the inventor of that vibrato, that unique BB King sound. His choice of notes made him sound more like a clarinettist to me. He swung more like the jazz sensibility. He didn’t just play straight pattern blues shapes, he used different notes to most other players. His legacy will be some great recordings, especially his classic, ‘Live At The Regal,’ which has influenced many players, and is one of the greatest live albums of all time. I prefer his album, ‘Live In Cook County Jail,’ though.If it wasn’t for the vibrato technique that BB himself called ‘twinging,’ there’d be no Peter Green, Eric Clapton or Paul Kossoff.”

Geoff was with me as my +1 guest when I shot pictures of BB at The Rainbow Theatre in London in 1978, his first time of seeing him as well as mine. He said that show that was probably the best concert he had seen by his hero, out of all of the times he had seen him on stage. “He and the band were more subtle back then. More bluesy and less commercial. Much of the slower, deeper more heartfelt blues stuff was dropped in favour of the big, brassy Vegas type approach in later years. But at that 1978 show it was a classic long standing line-up of his band, and there was a lot of real passionate blues. He was mighty that night.”

• All of us at Blues & Soul magazine send our deepest condolences to Mr King’s family and friends. We thank you for the music Riley B. King.

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