B.B. King died peacefully in his sleep last Thursday, leaving behind Lucille, his widowed guitar from which the blues bled. He was 89-years-old.
The King of the Blues also left behind a large throne to fill by whoever is the next prince to claim it. King’s legacy will guide those perpetuating the genre, but the way he and his guitar sang his pain cannot be imitated.
The music community lost a pioneer in collaboration and crossover, one who has worked with everyone from Eric Clapton and John Mayer, to D’Angelo and Brad Paisley. Not to mention teaming up with Big K.R.I.T. on “Praying Man,” one of my personal favorites.
His voice was Mississippi mud. Each grunt, each pick of the guitar, was like pulling your feet out of the swampy riverbeds. It was thick.
He had unmatchable grit, an authenticity that can only come from hurt and struggle. He had truth that could not be manufactured.
King had the gift of an old soul long before he was one, a must-have quality in a Blues artist. Anecdotes from his humble childhood in Berclair, Mississippi helped him paint the picture of the wisdom one needs to sing the Blues.
King began recording in the 1940s. He started by making the Blues relatable and enjoyable across the Deep South, traveling to multiple cities a night, infecting audiences with the sincere moan of his guitar.
At age 22, King hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, where he got his first big break on Sonny Boy Williamson’s Radio. After “Three O’clock Blues” hit number one, King and Lucille took their act to the national stage.
Since, he has released over 50 albums (many of which are classics), opened the B.B. King Blues Club in every corner of the country, and helped popularize Blues across the nation, particularly in the South and Midwest.
He’s a member of both the Blues and Rock and Roll Hall of Fames, he’s number six on Rolling Stone’s list of the top 100 guitarists of all time, and he’s a cross-over collaborator like no other. But most importantly, he’s a smooth storyteller.
One of my favorite King songs, “Riding With The King,” is anecdotal and informative: “I stepped out of Mississippi when I was 10-years-old, with a suit cut sharp as a razor, and a heart made of gold.”
I can just picture this dapper little 10-year-old boy with an old soul, guitar case in hand, maybe wearing a fedora, setting out to spread the blues. It’s an odd juxtaposition, but one that would eventually help crown him the King of the genre.
B.B. King once said, “When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.”
It was King’s talent with Lucille that won me over. There’s a rare characteristic among Blues guitarists; their guitars speak to you, each note a twangy, raspy reinforcement of raw emotion, and reminder that music should really make you feel something.
B.B. was the Blues. Maybe a part of the Blues will die with the King, or maybe, (and I can only hope), it will be revitalized in tribute to him; a prince looking to take over the throne will preside over what some consider a dying genre.
Whether you’re a long-time fan of the King, or just discovering his legacy, here are five songs that prove why to this day why B.B. is the reigning King of Blues.