Thursday 22 February 2018

Obituary: Daddy of them all, BB King bows out at 89

Blues great BB King, who has died at the age of 89. Photo: PA
Blues great BB King, who has died at the age of 89. Photo: PA
BB King with U2 at the Point in 1989

LARGER than life, the legend that was BB King has died aged 89.

King was easily the most eminent and influential blues musician of his generation.

King was, above all, a showman, and his willingness in later life to temper his music to suit the tastes of a white audience attracted criticism from blues' purists; but such carping overlooked the fact that King was also the articulate guardian of much of the blues' heritage, and that he had raised the form almost single-handedly from its backwater status into the musical mainstream.

His own playing, a majestic fusion of blues and jazz styles that brought him the nickname "King of the Blues", also had a profound effect on the development of modern rock music.

The son of a sharecropper, he was born Riley King on a plantation near Indianola, Mississippi, on September 16, 1925. His parents separated when he was four, and his mother married twice more before dying when Riley was nine, leaving him to be brought up by his grandmother.

As a boy he worked as a cotton picker. "Cotton surrounded my life and invaded my dreams," he recalled. "I saw it, felt it, dealt with it every day in a thousand ways." In the six months between harvesting and planting he would walk five miles and back each day to sit with the 86 other pupils who shared a single teacher at Elkhorn School.

In time he was promoted from ploughman to tractor driver on the plantation: "I loved it. The mule crapped, but the tractor hummed; the mule ploughed one row at a time, the tractor four at once."

As a child, King concentrated on gospel singing. His first contact with its profane half-brother, the blues, was on his great-aunt's wind-up phonograph, and this early experience was reinforced during his military service in an all-black US Army company. Then, aged 20, he hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with his mother's cousin, the famed bluesman Bukka White, who advised him: "If you want to be a good blues singer, people are going to be down on you, so dress like you're going to the bank to borrow money."

King found work at a company making fuel tanks, and moonlighted playing the bars and clubs: "I'd take my guitar and play on the streets. A gospel song would get me a pat on the head. But a blues would get me a dime. So you see why I stuck with the blues." He was soon earning more in a single day's busking than he had in a week as a farm labourer, modelling his playing on that of T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

"When I heard T-Bone, I flat out lost my mind," said King of Walker, who had updated the back-country blues for the faster tastes of the new plantations of Chicago. "Thought Jesus Himself had returned to Earth playing electric guitar. T-Bone's blues filled my insides with joy and good feeling. I became his disciple."

The harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson invited King to perform on his radio programme, 'King Biscuit Time', and this led to work in Memphis's Beale Street clubs and a slot promoting a pick-me-up tonic on WDIA, America's first all-black radio station. King soon had his own show, shortening his billing as "The Beale Street Blues Boy" to "BB".

Listening to the records he was asked to play on WDIA had broadened King's musical education, and at the instigation of Ike Turner - then a talent scout - King was signed to Modern Records

At Memphis's Sun Studios, soon to beget Elvis Presley, King then began a prolific recording career that saw him cut more than 200 discs in the 1950s alone. Three O'Clock Blues launched him to blues stardom in 1951, topping the Rhythm and Blues charts for 17 weeks.

King, essentially a gifted interpreter of the songs of others, followed this hit with standards he quickly made his own, including 'Sweet Little Angel' and 'Every Day I Have The Blues'. Yet he saw little money from his records, which sold cheaply and profited only the label: "I was making a half a cent a side - one penny for a record. It's like building buses, for example. If you built this bus for me and I didn't know anything about it, you could charge me whatever I'd pay for it. Now, which one of us is crazy? Me. And that's the way they did me on the records. But I don't fault them for it, because if you don't know, you don't know. It took me to learn."

A performer of considerable stamina, King paid his dues touring the "Chitlin' Circuit", the South's gruelling network of small clubs and theatres. Unconventionally, he was backed by a 13-piece band, which travelled in a converted Greyhound bus known as Big Red, while King rode separately in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac. In 1956 they played 342 one-night stands at separate venues, and two years later Big Red was written off in a head-on collision with an oil tanker. King's band emerged unscathed, but the truck driver and a passenger were killed. The insurance on the bus had lapsed only a few days earlier; King's liability was settled at $100,000, and it would take him years to pay it off.

At one performance, in Twist, Arkansas, two men began fighting, knocking over a kerosene heater. As the hall went up in flames, King ran to safety, only to rush back inside to retrieve his precious Gibson guitar, only narrowly escaping with his life. The fight concerned a girl called Lucille, and King christened the guitar - and all its successors - Lucille "to remind me not to do such a silly thing again".

BB King, who liked to say that "all women are angels", was twice married and divorced. He is reputed to have had 15 children by 15 different partners, and once mused: "I think that's the only thing that society will frown on me that I know about."

BB King, born September 16 1925, died May 14 2015 (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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