Ed Driscoll

R.I.P., B.B. King, 89

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BB King with his beloved ‘Lucille’ guitar at the Royal Festival Hall, London,1994 (Rex Features via AP Images).

“The thrill is gone: Blues legend B.B. King dead at 89,” Fox News sadly reports:

B.B. King, the legendary blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist, died Thursday in Las Vegas, his attorney said. King was 89 years old.

Attorney Brent Bryson told The Associated Press that King died peacefully in his sleep at 9:40 p.m. local time at his home.

The one-time farmhand brought new fans to the blues and influenced a generation of musicians with his heartfelt vocals and soaring guitar on songs such as “The Thrill Is Gone.”

King sold millions of records worldwide and was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

King played a Gibson guitar that he affectionately called Lucille and was not only the undisputed king of the blues but a mentor to scores of guitarists including Eric Clapton.

Born Riley B. King in 1925, he began his career as a performer and DJ in the late 1940s with the sobriquet of “Blues Boy,” which he quickly shortened to his famous initials. The Lucille nickname for his Gibson semi-hollowbody guitar came from an incident while performing during this early period of his career:

In the winter of 1949, King played at a dance hall in Twist, Arkansas. In order to heat the hall, a barrel half-filled with kerosene was lit, a fairly common practice at the time. During a performance, two men began to fight, knocking over the burning barrel and sending burning fuel across the floor. The hall burst into flames, which triggered an evacuation. Once outside, King realized that he had left his guitar inside the burning building. He entered the blaze to retrieve his beloved instrument, a Gibson hollow electric. The next day, King learned that the two men were fighting over a woman named Lucille. King named that first guitar Lucille, as well as every one he owned since that experience, as a reminder never again to do something as stupid as to fight over a woman or run into a burning building.

By the early 1980s, after King had been namechecked by John Lennon of the Beatles on “Dig It” from their Let It Be album, toured as an opening act for the Rolling Stones on their 1969 American tour, and recorded his signature hit of “The Thrill is Gone,” Gibson reached out to King to produce a “Lucille”-branded version of their ES-355 instrument, which King would play for the rest of his career. Along with Freddie and Albert King (none of whom were related) B.B. was part of a tripartite of “Blues Kings” all of whom played Gibsons and specialized in fluid single-note electric guitar solos capped with stinging vibratos. (And all of whom were each huge influences on a young man named Eric Clapton in the early 1960s, who would in turn make his teenage idols even better known to American audiences.)

Of the mid-century American bluesmen, King, often tuxedo or business suit-clad, and with his frequent appearances on the Johnny Carson Show backed by Johnny’s large, swinging orchestra in the 1970s and ’80s, did the most to transform the blues into an upscale polished genre somewhat reminiscent of the days of the Big Band era. As with many who learned to play guitar during that period, he was a huge influence on my own playing, though sadly, as I mentioned last week when it was announced that King was going into hospice care, I didn’t see him playing live until 2007. (And unlike Les Paul, I never had the opportunity to interview him.) By then, he was clearly on the downward path of his performing career, and played virtually the entire performance seated, his occasional guitar playing interspersed with long shaggy dog stories about his past.

Recent stories in TMZ and the British tabloids depict an ugly fight about to erupt between King’s manager and his surviving family over King’s estate. It likely won’t be pretty. But I’d prefer to remember him from his much more glorious past as a brilliant singer, innovative electric guitarist, performer and music influence.

Did you ever see him perform live? Have a favorite album? Studied his playing? Let me know in the comments.

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