B. B. King, whose world-weary voice and wailing guitar lifted him from the cotton fields of Mississippi to a global stage and the apex of American blues, died Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 89.
It was reported on Mr. King’s Web site that he died in his sleep.
Mr. King married country blues to big-city rhythms and created a sound instantly recognizable to millions: a stinging guitar with a shimmering vibrato, notes that coiled and leapt like an animal, and a voice that groaned and bent with the weight of lust, longing and lost love.
“I wanted to connect my guitar to human emotions,” Mr. King said in his autobiography, “Blues All Around Me” (1996), written with David Ritz.
In performances, his singing and his solos flowed into each other as he wrung notes from the neck of his guitar, vibrating his hand as if it were wounded, his face a mask of suffering. Many of the songs he sang — like his biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone” (“I’ll still live on/But so lonely I’ll be”) — were poems of pain and perseverance.
The music historian Peter Guralnick once noted that Mr. King helped expand the audience for the blues through “the urbanity of his playing, the absorption of a multiplicity of influences, not simply from the blues, along with a graciousness of manner and willingness to adapt to new audiences and give them something they were able to respond to.”
B. B. stood for Blues Boy, a name he took with his first taste of fame in the 1940s. His peers were bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, whose nicknames fit their hard-bitten lives. But he was born a King, albeit in a sharecropper’s shack surrounded by dirt-poor laborers and wealthy landowners.
Mr. King went out on the road and never came back after one of his first recordings reached the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts in 1951. He began in juke joints, country dance halls and ghetto nightclubs, playing 342 one-night stands in 1956 and 200 to 300 shows a year for a half-century thereafter, rising to concert halls, casino main stages and international acclaim.
He was embraced by rock ’n’ roll fans of the 1960s and ’70s, who remained loyal as they grew older together. His playing influenced many of the most successful rock guitarists of the era, including Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
Clapton and King play his signature song, "The Thrill Is Gone":
King with John Mayer ("Every day I wake up, I put B.B. King on, just to remember how to do it right. . . . It's like stealing something from somebody right in front of them!"):
A sample of King's "How Blue Can You Get?" provided the chorus for the enigmatic 1996 song "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand" by Primitive Radio Gods:
Here's King playing it at Sing Sing Prison on Thanksgiving:
Now some videos for guitarists — King shows how he achieves his famous vibrato:
How his string bending was inspired by T-Bone Walker:
How he was influenced by two early jazz greats, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt:
King's "ambiguous third":
More from the NYT obit:
In addition to winning more than a dozen Grammy Awards (including a lifetime achievement award), having a star on Hollywood Boulevard and being inducted in both the Rock and Roll and Blues Halls of Fame, Mr. King was among the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995 and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, awards rarely associated with the blues. In 1999, in a public conversation with William Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mr. King recounted how he came to sing the blues.
“Growing up on the plantation there in Mississippi, I would work Monday through Saturday noon,” he said. “I’d go to town on Saturday afternoons, sit on the street corner, and I’d sing and play.
“I’d have me a hat or box or something in front of me. People that would request a gospel song would always be very polite to me, and they’d say: ‘Son, you’re mighty good. Keep it up. You’re going to be great one day.’ But they never put anything in the hat.
“But people that would ask me to sing a blues song would always tip me and maybe give me a beer. They always would do something of that kind. Sometimes I’d make 50 or 60 dollars one Saturday afternoon. Now you know why I’m a blues singer.”