The blues were born in the Mississippi Delta shortly before the dawn of the 20th Century. The genre, known for its stories of hard times and suffering, originated with African-American sharecroppers who endured long, hot and hard labor picking cotton in the sweltering heat of the summer sun, lived in squalid conditions, and were kept in manipulated indentureship and perpetual debt by never quite making enough money to pay off their bills at local merchants.
While a few blues artists – Robert Johnson, W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday – brought the sound of the blues into the mainstream of music during the first half of the 20th Century, it was not until the late 1940’s and early 1950’s that blues blossomed and hit its stride as a bona fide genre of American music.
An accomplished guitarist with an one-of-a-kind voice that wrung out every bit of pain, sorrow, and pragmatism that the blues had to offer, King, in many ways, became the face of the blues for a lot of America.
While blues artists had a profound influence on rock – British artists of the 1960’s drew heavily on their influence and vast body of work and groups like the Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos, fronted by Eric Clapton, were the crossroads where blues and rock met and married, producing generations of rock-blues musicians that continue today (listen to Nirvana’s haunting acoustic version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” and it’s as though you can hear Lead Belly singing along in the background) – in general, they continued to exist, much like jazz musicians, in a popular, but tightly-defined, niche in the landscape of popular American music.
Except for B. B. King. With his famously-named guitar – Lucille – and his showmanship as a guitarist, along with highly-accessible songs, including his eponymous “The Thrill Is Gone,” King managed to gain a large popular audience.
B. B. King stayed on the music circuit, performing along the way with artists like Clapton, The Rolling Stones (King opened for them on their 1969 tour), and U2, despite battling diabetes and high blood pressure for decades.
In the last few years, blues fans have consistently pointed out that B. B. King’s performances were erratic at best: King missed musical cues, forgot lyrics, and often went into long, rambling, and random soliloquies while onstage.
B. B. King’s last performance was on October 3, 2014 in Chicago. However, the performance had to be cut short because King wasn’t feeling well enough to continue. He was hospitalized with dehydration and exhaustion.
On May 1, 2015, after two hospitalizations due to complications from diabetes and blood pressure, B. B. King’s website announced that King had entered hospice care at his home in Las Vegas.
On May 14, 2015, B. B. King died. The official cause of King’s death was complications from dementia (vascular dementia).
Sadly, B. B. King’s family has already begun the legal fight over who will control his estate (there are allegations that King’s long-time manager, Laverne Toney, whom King appointed as his power of attorney, mishandled King’s care and money).
It’s a tragic footnote to an incredible life.