B.B. King, the larger-than-life guitarist and singer who helped popularize electric blues and brought it to audiences for more than six decades, died Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 89. King, who was diagnosed with diabetes nearly 30 years ago, was hospitalized last month due to dehydration. Last October, he was forced to cancel eight tour dates for dehydration and exhaustion. His attorney, Brent Bryson, confirmed his death to the Associated Press.
Into his late eighties, King toured the world year-round as the unrivaled ambassador of the blues. His indelible style – a throaty, throttling vocal howl paired with a ringing single-note vibrato sound played on his electric guitar named Lucille – defined the genre. He won 15 Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
“He is without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” Eric Clapton wrote in his 2008 biography, “and the most humble and genuine man you would ever wish to meet. In terms of scale or stature, I believe that if Robert Johnson was reincarnated, he is probably B.B. King.”
King didn’t do anything small; his excesses included food, women, (he claimed to have fathered 15 children by 15 different partners) and gambling (he moved to Las Vegas in 1975). His sound was also big: Speaking about “When Love Comes to Town,” U2’s 1988 duet with King, Bono recalled, “I gave it my absolute everything I had in that howl at the start of the song. And then B.B. King opened up his mouth and I felt like a girl. We had learned and absorbed, but the more we tried to be like B.B., the less convincing we were.”
He was born Riley B. King in Itta Bena, Mississippi, on September 16th, 1925. His young parents divorced when he was five and his mother died when he was nine, leaving him to be raised by his maternal grandmother. King dropped out of school in tenth grade (though he vigorously studied math and languages until late in his life) and earned a living picking cotton for a penny a pound and singing gospel songs on a local street corner, studying music under cousin Bukka White. He married at 17. “I guess I was looking for love, because I never had anybody I believed truly loved me,” he told Rolling Stone in 1998. It was the first of two failed marriages. “Since my early childhood, I have had a problem trying to open up. Please open me up. Look inside! ‘Cause I can’t. I don’t know how to.”
In 1948, King was living in Memphis working as a tractor driver when he landed a gig on Sonny Boy Williamson’s local radio show. That led to a job at a popular West Memphis juke joint playing six nights a week, earning $12 a night, In Memphis, he met artists like Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker, where he heard electric guitar for the first time. “T-Bone was, to me, that sound of being in heaven,” he said.