Sunday 23 October 2016

Obama leads tributes to BB King

Published 15/05/2015 | 07:11

BB King died in his sleep at his Las Vegas home at the age of 89, his lawyer said. (AP)
BB King died in his sleep at his Las Vegas home at the age of 89, his lawyer said. (AP)

President Barack Obama has led the tributes to BB King , saying says will be "one killer blues session in heaven tonight".

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The president issued a statement mourning the death of the blues legend which added: "The blues has lost its king, and America has lost a legend."

Mr Obama said King rose from a sharecropper's son to become "the ambassador who brought his all-American music to his country and the world".

He said King's music gets stuck in your head and gets you "doing the things you probably shouldn't do".

He recalled how he was unexpectedly drawn into singing a few lines of Sweet Home Chicago with King when he performed at a White House blues concert three years ago.

Mr Obama said: "BB may be gone, but that thrill will be with us forever."

King - who died last night at the age of 89 in Las Vegas, where he had been in hospice care - said anyone could play the blues, and that "as long as people have problems, the blues can never die".

Although he kept performing well into his 80s, the 15-time Grammy winner suffered from diabetes and other problems. He collapsed during a concert in Chicago last October, later blaming dehydration and exhaustion.

Also paying tribute was soul singer Smokey Robinson, who said: "The world has physically lost not only one of the greatest musical people ever but one of the greatest people ever. Enjoy your eternity."

In a video posted on Facebook, Eric Clapton said: "I just wanted to express my sadness and to say thank you to my dear friend BB King. I wanted to thank him for all the inspiration and encouragement he gave me as a player over the years and for the friendship that we enjoyed.

"There's not a lot left to say because this music is almost a thing of the past now, and there are not many left to play it in the pure way that BB did. He was a beacon for all of us who love this kind of music, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart."

For generations of blues musicians and rock 'n rollers, King's plaintive vocals and soaring playing style set the standard for an art form born in the American South and honoured and performed worldwide. After the deaths of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters decades ago, King was the greatest upholder of a tradition that inspired everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Robert Cray to the Rolling Stones and Clapton.

King played a Gibson guitar he affectionately called Lucille, with a style that included beautifully crafted single-string runs punctuated by loud chords, subtle vibratos and bent notes, building on the standard 12-bar blues and improvising like a jazz master.

The result could hypnotise an audience, no more so than when King used it to full effect on his signature song, The Thrill Is Gone.

His style was unusual. King did not like to sing and play at the same time, so he developed a call-and-response, and let Lucille do some of the talking.

"Sometimes I just think that there are more things to be said, to make the audience understand what I'm trying to do more," King said in 2006. "When I'm singing, I don't want you to just hear the melody. I want you to relive the story, because most of the songs have pretty good storytelling."

King kept at it even as his health declined, playing more than 100 shows a year well into his 80s. He believed touring extended his lifespan. "I got a chance to ride today on a very nice bus and from my window I can see how beautiful this country is and how nice it is to be alive," he said once. "That to me is like extra vitamins."

From 1950 to 1970, he travelled about 300 days a year and spent the remaining days in the studio. In 1956, he and his band played 342 one-nighters. By 1967, he had made 30 albums and 225 singles. Even in 1989, he was away from his Las Vegas home about 300 days, but it was no longer mostly one-night stands.

Keith Richards would recall touring non-stop with the Rolling Stones during the mid-1960s, then adding: "That's nothing. I mean, tell that to BB King and he'll say, 'I've been doing it for years'."

King enjoyed acclaim and considerable commercial success, acting the gentleman onstage and off. The blues was born of despair, but King worked in many moods, and he encouraged black youngsters in particular to make positive choices.

"Most of the time when people say blues, it's pretty negative," King told a Houston audience in February 1992. "But I'm here to tell you, blues is a label that people put on a music that was started by black people, and you can choose between the negative and the positive."

King was named the third greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone magazine (after Hendrix and Duane Allman, who died in their 20s, an age when King was just getting started). He sold more than 40 million records worldwide, a remarkable number for blues.

He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His album Live At The Regal was declared a historic sound and permanently preserved in the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry.

His playing style influenced performers from Otis Rush and Buddy Guy to Clapton, Hendrix, John Mayall and Mike Bloomfield.

Musicians even named a section of the guitar's neck after their blues idol, dubbing it the "BB box". Usually located from the 10th to 12th frets, depending on the key of the song, it is where King twisted many of his signature guitar licks.

Riley B King was born on September 16 1925 on a tenant farm near Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta. His parents separated when he was four, and his mother took him to the even smaller town of Kilmichael. She died when he was nine, 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 seven. 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," King said.

His father eventually found him and took him back to Indianola. When the weather was bad and King could not 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, and King did not play and sing blues in earnest until he was away from his religious household, in basic training with the Army during the Second World War. He listened to and was influenced by both blues and jazz players: 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, Mississippi.

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

By 1948, King earned a daily spot on WDIA, the first radio station in America to programme entirely by African-Americans for African-Americans, as "the Pepticon Boy", pitching the alcoholic tonic between his live blues songs.

Until then, he had been known as Riley King. He needed a better nickname. The station manager dubbed him the Beale Street Blues Boy, because he had played for tips in a Beale Street park. Soon, it was BB, and it stuck.

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