Last Thursday, the blues world lost its greatest living ambassador and one of its most legendary artists when B.B. King passed away. The 89-year-old guitarist suffered a series of mini-strokes from his type-two diabetes and died at his home in Las Vegas, leading to an outpouring of tributes from fans and musicians around the world. Here in Texas, blues musicians throughout the state had come in contact with and been inspired by King and his music for decades.
“Of every blues celebrity, King was the greatest, most encouraging and loving,” says Dallas blues guitarist Lance Lopez, summing up the thoughts of many of his fellow musicians. “He's not only been like that with me. He's that way with all young blues guitarists.”
King's music was defined by the incomparable relationship he enjoyed with his beloved guitar Lucille, a beautiful black Gibson. He saved her from a dance hall fire in the early '50s. Together, they created poetry of pain and perseverance birthed from spending life on the road playing the blues. He'd bend her strings, one note at a time, igniting solos that inspired thousands of young guitarists to find their own Lucilles.
Riley “Blues Boy” King was born on September 16, 1925, to Albert and Nora Ellen King and grew up in a sharecroppers family working in the cotton fields of Bercalir, Mississippi. When he was 14 years old, King was living on a borrowed allowance of $2.50 a month, reported Dick Waterman, a blues scholar who managed several blues artists, including Buddy Guy. But by the end of the harvest, he owed the landlord $7.54.
King was a self-taught guitarist who longed to perform professionally. But it wasn't until he turned 22 years old that he would seek out Sonny Boy Williamson, a bluesman whose real name was Rice Miller, in Memphis, the musical hub of the South.
Miller gave him job playing a gig at a lower-paying nightclub job. He was a hit, and a popular disc jokey began spinning King's blues onair at WDIA, a Memphis radio station. King soon earned the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which was later shortened to “Blues Boy” and finally “B.B.”
Two years later, he released a single, “Three O'Clock Blues,” that reached No. 1 on the rhythm-and-blues charts. He never returned to the plantation.
King's relationship with Lucille may be over, but their 65-year legacy lives on in their music — a marriage between country blues and big-city rhythms — their life lessons and their love affair with the Mississippi Delta Blues.
Their love affair is the reason that Lopez plays a Gibson. “He said, 'Why are you playing these Strats and trying to be Stevie Ray? I like you better playing Gibson,'” Lopez remembers. “Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top) told me the same thing. If those two guys tell you to do something, you do it.”
Lopez had always known of King's music. “It was kind of like Elvis,” he says. “You just always knew about B.B. King.” He saw King perform in 1990 at the Starplex in Dallas. Stevie Ray Vaughan opened the show. Later in the show, King invited Vaughan onstage, and the music — the magic — that they created was a defining moment for Lopez.
10 years later, Lopez opened for King at the Bell County Expo Center in Belton, Texas. When Lopez began to play, King stepped out of his tour bus, took a seat on the side of the stage and watched him make his guitar sing. They became fast friends and performed together at several more concerts and festivals.
Local blues guitarist Anson Funderburgh recalls that he was 15 or 16 years old when me met King at the Losers Club in Dallas off Lover's Lane. After the show, he sat with King as he greeted his fans. They talked about music and the guitar. The old blues king treated Funderburgh as if he'd known him all his life, and the lessons that he shared with the young guitarist improved his playing.
“We lost the greatest ambassador that the blues ever had,” Funderburgh says. “He will be missed.”
But King's relationship with Lucille didn't just inspire young blues guitarists.
Jesse “Taco Bear” Dominguez of local metal act C.R.O.M.A. was first introduced to King's music in the early '70s when he was cruising down the strip in Pecos, Texas, with his parents. As a child sitting in the backseat, he felt King's music was speaking to him.
“King's sound was singular,” Dominguez says. “King's guitar tone, his style, that soulful delivery of every note inspired me to want to 'talk' with my guitar as well.”
Jim Crye of Fort Worth's Volume Dealer agrees. He discovered King after reading an interview with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons who introduced him to B.B. King Live at the Regal. Crye sat down to learn King's licks. “But I always ended up just listening and not getting much done on the guitar,” he says.
King's music taught Scott Shelby, guitarist of Warbeast, to scale back on his playing and allow notes to ring their sorrow before moving to the next one.
“You don't have play a bunch of notes to make your music,” Shelby says. “King would hit one or two notes, bend the hell out of them and make them talk. He was truly a legend.”
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Yet King's talking blues didn't just influence guitarists to find their Lucilles and channel their inner sorrow and pain. He also inspired love.
Metal guitarist Bobby Michaels of Blackout was recording at Quad Studios in New York in 1991 when he met his wife, who also worked at the studio. She'd just finished a session with King and told him that she got to hold Lucille. He fell in love with her and the blues legend's playing. He's been a fan ever since.
“The thrill is gone but not forgotten,” Michaels says.
We couldn't agree more.