From his humble beginnings he helped revolutionize music with his soulful singing and guitar playing.
His sound and that of other blues players of his generation later fused with R&B music and set the stage for the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s.
Artists from Elvis Presley to some of the 1960s guitar gods” Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Page, Dave Mason, Steve Winwood and Keith Richards, to name a few, all drew inspiration from delta blues.
His impact on music and culture was such that President Obama paid tribute to his career.
“The blues has lost its king, and America has lost a legend,” the President said in a statement today (May 15). “B.B. may be gone, but that thrill will be with us forever. And there’s going to be one killer blues session in heaven tonight.”
King transcended politics. Republican President George H.W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 1990, and his son, President George W. Bush honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award possible for a civilian.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and ranked sixth in 2011 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists.
His contemporaries included Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker.
They came up at a time when segregation was rampant in the south, yet their music reached across the divide between African-Americans and White America. King saw his long career as part of the struggle to gain acceptance for his music.
“While the civil rights movement was fighting for the respect of black people, I felt I was fighting for the respect of the blues,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Blues All Around Me.”
King signed his first recording contract with Los Angeles-based RPM Records in 1949, and the legendary Sam Phillips of Sun Records, produced many of his early songs. 3 O’Clock Blues became his first No. 1 hit on Rhythm and Blues charts in 1952.
He began touring extensively across the country and never really stopped. He always played a signature black Gibson acoustic, electric guitar, of which he had many, but always named “Lucille.”
By 1956, he was a star and his music was wildly popular. He played 342 concerts across the country and record three albums.
He continued touring until last October. He was forced to stop playing mid-performance at the House of Blues in Chicago after feeling sick. He was diagnosed with dehydration and exhaustion. He’d struggled with his health in later years because of his diabetes and high blood pressure.
He was forced to cancel shows for the rest of the year and was hospitalized twice. This month, he announced on his web site that he had entered hospice care at his home in Las Vegas, signaling that his condition was terminal.
King’s death was confirmed late Thursday (May 15) on daughter Claudette’s Facebook page.