Blues legend B.B. King succumbs at 89

RFP wire reports | 5/22/2015, 11:58 a.m. | Updated on 5/22/2015, 12:04 p.m.
B.B. King believed that anyone could play the blues, and that “as long as people have problems, the blues can ...
Mr. King

Fans will be able to say farewell to Mr. King at a public viewing scheduled 3 to 7 p.m. Friday, May 22, at the Palm Mortuary West in Las Vegas. But there will be no memorial service.

His funeral on Saturday, May 23, will be private for family and close friends, according to LaVerne Toney, Mr. King’s business manager for 39 years.

Mr. King is to be buried next week on the grounds of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in his hometown of Indianola, Miss., according to Allen Hammons, a member of the museum’s board of directors.

Mr. King was born in rural Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta. His parents separated when he was 4, and his mother took him to the even smaller town of Kilmichael to live with his grandmother. His mother died when he was 9, and when his grandmother died as well, he lived alone in her primitive cabin, raising cotton to work off debts.

“I was a regular hand when I was 7. I picked cotton. I drove tractors. Children grew up not thinking that this is what they must do. We thought this was the thing to do to help your family,” Mr. King said.

His father eventually found him and took him back to Indianola. When the weather was bad and Mr. King couldn’t work the fields, he walked 10 miles to a one-room school. He quit in the 10th grade.

A preacher uncle taught him the guitar, but Mr. King didn’t play and sing the blues in earnest until he was away from his religious household in basic training with the Army during World War II.

He listened to and was influenced by both blues and jazz players, including such greats as T. Bone Walker, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian.

His first break came with gospel — singing lead and playing guitar with the Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers on Sunday afternoons from the studio of WGRM radio in Greenwood, Miss.

But he soon left for Memphis, Tenn., where his career took off after Sonny Boy Williamson let him play a song on WKEM.

By 1948, Mr. King had earned a daily spot on WDIA, the first radio station in America programmed entirely by African-Americans for African-Americans. He was initially known as “the Pepticon Boy,” pitching the health tonic between his live blues songs.

Seeking to improve on that, the station manager dubbed him the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” because he had played for tips in a Beale Street park. Soon, it became just “Blues Boy” and then just B.B.

Initial success came with his third recording, of “Three O’Clock Blues” in 1950. He hit the road, and rarely paused thereafter.

Among his Grammys: Best traditional blues album: “A Christmas Celebration of Hope,” and best pop instrumental performance for “Auld Lang Syne” in 2003; best male rhythm and blues performance in 1971 for his “The Thrill Is Gone;” best ethnic or traditional recording in 1982 for the album “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere.”