B. B. King, whose world-weary voice and wailing guitar lifted him from the cotton fields of Mississippi to a global stage and the apex of American blues, died Thursday in Las Vegas, The Associated Press reported. He was 89.
King married country blues to big-city rhythms and created a sound instantly recognizable to millions: a stinging guitar with a shimmering vibrato and a voice that groaned and bent with the weight of lust, longing and lost love.
In performances, his singing and his solos flowed into each other as he wrung notes from the neck of his guitar, vibrating his hand as if it were wounded, his face a mask of suffering. Many of the songs he sang — like his biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone”— were poems of pain and perseverance.
The music historian Peter Guralnick once noted that King helped expand the audience for the blues through “the urbanity of his playing, the absorption of a multiplicity of influences, not simply from the blues, along with a graciousness of manner and willingness to adapt to new audiences and give them something they were able to respond to.”
B. B. stood for Blues Boy, a name he took with his first taste of fame in the 1940s. His peers were bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, whose nicknames fit their hard-bitten lives. King was born in a sharecropper’s shack, surrounded by dirt-poor laborers and wealthy landowners.
King went out on the road and never came back after one of his first recordings reached the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts in 1951. He began in juke joints, country dance halls and ghetto nightclubs, playing 342 one-night stands in 1956 and 200 to 300 shows a year for a half-century thereafter, rising to concert halls, casino main stages and international acclaim.
He was embraced by rock ’n’ roll fans of the 1960s and ’70s, who remained loyal as they grew older together. His playing influenced many of the most successful rock guitarists of the era, including Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Rolling Stone magazine placed him behind only Hendrix and Duane Allman in its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
King was awarded his 15th Grammy award in 2009 for his album One Kind Favor. He was also inducted into both the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Until recently, King performed in at least 100 concerts a year.