As you’ve probably heard by now, B.B. King passed away in his sleep last night at the age of 89. Though not a native Memphian, King was as well known and successful an emissary as the Bluff City has ever had. One of the so-called “Three Kings of the Blues Guitar” (alongside Albert King and Freddie King), B.B. King was for many the very embodiment of blues music; his contribution to the style can simply not be overstated.
After discovering that he could earn more than double the amount he was paid growing cotton by playing in clubs, Riley B. King moved from Itta Bena, Mississippi to Memphis. In 1949, King became a regular DJ on WDIA, where he first became known as the Beale Street Blues Boy (eventually shortened to Blues Boy, or B.B.). “Three O’Clock Blues” wasn’t his first recording, but it was the first to find widespread success. Soon after King was touring seemingly non-stop, regularly playing between 200 and 300 shows a year, even into his 80s. His greatest chart success came in 1969 with “The Thrill is Gone”, though he also had hits in the 1990s and 2000s thanks to collaborations with U2 and Eric Clapton.
Incredibly prolific during his 66 years in the music industry, King recorded over 40 studio albums and 17 live albums, including 1965’s famous Live at the Regal (1971’s Live at Cook County Jail is a personal favorite). In 2006, President Bush awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Memphis and blues fans the world over will always remember King and his contributions to not just the blues, but the music industry at large. Our thoughts go out to his family members.