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B.B. King was a class act

Published:Tuesday | May 19, 2015 | 10:39 AMRoy Black
B.B. King

Another Blues giant has passed on. This time it's B.B. King. He made the transition last Thursday, four months short of his 90th birthday.

King was third in a line of three luminaries who passed away in quick succession, the others being Percy Sledge, April 14 (age 74) and Ben E. King, April 30 (age 76).

B.B. King was a class act, a man who epitomised the blues with his own styling. The blues was his life - that bitter-sweet, melancholy, dancing song that had its origin mainly with negroes of the deep southern states.

It wasn't anything extraordinary to find blacks singing in the north western region of Mississippi where King was born, and which produced other stalwarts such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Robert Johnson. King, no doubt, was deeply influenced by them.

Growing up into a Sharecropping family, King became exposed very early to the rigours of farming, and somehow those dry, dusty, southern bottom-land bred loneliness and futility - essential ingredients of the blues, became embedded in him. Born, Riley B. King on a plantation outside of Indianola Mississippi, on September 16, 1925, everything the youngster did in those early days drew him closer to a life of singing.

His parents and grandparents were singers. According to him, "My mother started me out singing gospel in church when I was five years old". And so, being brought up in the hand-clapping, spirit-filled church of his parents, gave him a source of music that poured rich, vibrant tones into the heart of his blues.

The teenager enrolled in Army service in the early 1940s, and there be began to embrace the guitar to complement his singing.

"When I went into the army, some of the fellas had guitars around the barracks and I started fooling around with them", King recalled.

He taught himself the instrument, with great inspiration from more seasoned campaigners like Memphis Slim, Gene Autry, Jimmy Rogers and T. Bone Walker, who inspired his switch to the electric guitar.

In later years, King became somewhat of a genius with that instrument, prompting Rolling Stones magazine to rate him number six in their 2011 list of 100 greatest guitarists of all times.

professional career

After the war, King began singing professionally, later settling in Memphis, Tennessee, where he gained a 10-minute slot on the all-Negro radio station - WDIA, as a singer and disc jock.

The popularity of the expanded slot led to King being nicknamed 'Beale Street Blues Boy', which was later shortened to 'Blues Boy' and further shortened to B.B. He made his recording debut with Miss Martha King, in 1949, for Bullet Records, and followed with several others for RPM, before assembling his own band and performing numerous gigs across the country.

King's first Billboard number one hit, Three o'clock Blues, came in February 1952 and was followed by an impressive list, which made him one of the most important names in R&B music at the time, while attracting billings at major venues in Washington and New York.

By the mid-1950s, King was considered one of the most influential blues musicians of all times, earning the title 'The King of the Blues'.

Amazingly, he performed almost up to the time of his death, doing an average 300 nights per year during the last 30 years of his life.

A pioneer of the rock blues, King's accolades are innumerable, but for those we remember, they include, four Hall of Fame inductions - Blues (1980), Rock and Roll (1987), Hollywood Bowl (2008) and Official R&B music (2014), several Grammy Awards, and a museum dedicated in his honor in his hometown of Indianola.