The Mississippi-born guitarist, who had suffered from Type II diabetes for two decades, died peacefully in his sleep Thursday night at his home in Las Vegas, his attorney Brent Bryson said. In October, King fell ill during a show and after being diagnosed with dehydration and exhaustion, cancelled his concert tour and had not returned to touring at the time of his death.
With his trusty Gibson guitar Lucille, King developed his audiences in stages, connecting with African-Americans region by region in the 1950s and ’60s, breaking through to the American mainstream in the ’70s and becoming a global ambassador for the blues soon thereafter, becoming the first blues musician to play the Soviet Union.
King, whose best-known song was “The Thrill is Gone,” developed a commercial style of the blues guitar-playing long on vibrato and short, stinging guitar runs while singing almost exclusively about romance. Unlike the musicians who influenced him, Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker, for example, or his contemporaries Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin Wolf whose music bore geographic identities, King’s music was not tethered to the style heard at the Mississippi plantation he was born on or the Beale Street sound in Memphis where he first established his career.
He took rural 12-bar blues and welded it to big city, horn driven ensembles populated with musicians who understood swing and jazz, but played music that worked a groove and allowed King’s honey-sweet vocals and passionate guitar licks to stand out. His solos often started with a four- or five-note statement before sliding into a soothing, jazzy phrase; it’s the combination of tension and release that King learned from gospel singers and the jazz saxophonists Lester Young and Johnny Hodges.
“The first rock ‘n’ roll I ever knew about was Fats Domino and Little Richard because they were playing blues but differently,” King said in the liner notes to MCA’s 1992 box set King of the Blues. “And I started to do what I do now — incorporating. You can’t just stay in the same groove all the time. … I tried to edge a little closer to Fats and all of them, but not to go completely.”
The universal appeal of King’s guitar sound, admired by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Michael Bloomfield and Eric Clapton, and his welcoming performance style opened doors for him globally as he was one of the most consistent touring acts of the last 50 years. For more than half a century King averaged 275 shows per year; in 1956 alone, he played 342 one-nighters.
“I found that each time I went to a place I would get more fans,” King says in the book The B.B. King Treasures. “I started to get letters, and in that area people would buy records. People thought I was making a lot of money because I was traveling a lot. That was the only way I could survive.”
King had a 40-year stretch on the Billboard 200 with 33 titles charting. His 2000 album with Eric Clapton, Riding With the King, hit No. 3, King’s chart peak. On his own, King hit the top 40 twice: 1970’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds, which followed the album that included “The Thrill is Gone,” Completely Well, hit No. 26, and Live In Cook County Jail reached No. 25 a year later.
Live in Cook County Jailwas the biggest of 25 albums that landed on the Top R&B Albums chart, hitting No. 1 for three weeks during its 31-week run on the chart. Nine of King’s albums hit No. 1 on the Blues Albums chart, the last being Live at the Royal Albert Hall 2011 in 2012.
King landed 35 songs on the Hot 100 between 1957 when “Be Careful With a Fool” peaked at No. 95 and “When Love Comes to Town,” a duet with U2, reached No. 68. King’s chart peak was “The Thrill is Gone,” his 1969 single that hit No. 15. King only had two other top 40 hits.
King won 15 Grammy Awards, received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.