BB King dead at 89: the bluesman who influenced a generation

Musicians salute the last of the great blues artists, who was rooted in the Mississippi Delta of the 1920s


Guitarist and singer BB King, known as the "King of the Blues" has died in Las Vegas aged 89, prompting tributes from fans, musicians and writers. The one-time farm hand was known for his hits Lucille, Sweet Black Angel, Rock Me Baby and The Thrill is Gone.

BB King was "the last of the great bluesmen", says Mick Brown in the Daily Telegraph. He was the sole survivor of a tradition that goes back to the Mississippi Delta and the early 1920s. His contemporaries, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf all departed before him.

Born in Mississippi to a sharecropper family, the largely self-taught guitarist sang his way out of poverty.

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King began his music career in country dance halls where he was nicknamed BB, short for Blues Boy. His first recordings reached the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts in 1951, but he was later embraced by rock fans of the 1960s and 70s.

King, rated one of the greatest guitarists of all time, went on to influence a generation of musicians, and to work with artists including Eric Clapton and U2. An inductee in both the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, King played a Gibson guitar he nicknamed Lucille.

Musicians and music writers have played tribute to King for the role he played in popular music.

Historian Peter Guralnick is quoted in the New York Times as crediting King with helping 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."

In The Guardian, Charles Shaar Murray writes: "Very few 20th century musicians were able to combine the roles of game-changing, creative, innovative virtuoso and beloved popular entertainer."

Murray compares King to Louis Armstrong for his combination of jovial, winning personality and musical brilliance. BB King's "instrumental virtuosity" and his "warm, chesty singing" led to his pre-eminence not only in the world of blues, but in the broader expanse of the past musical century's popular mainstream.

King continued playing until the very end, but sadly, in his last years he would suffer from physical decline that affected his performances. Of his 2011 gig at the Royal Albert Hall, Murray says, "the Big B had become a magnificent ruin, like the Coliseum or the Sphinx".

Musicians paid tribute to King on Twitter. Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, who collaborated with the blues guitarist on the 1971 album BB King in London, tweeted: "God bless BB King peace and love to his family Ringo and Barbara x."

Singer Lenny Kravitz wrote: "BB, anyone could play a thousand notes and never say what you said in one."

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