Every guitar—and every guitarist—sounds a little sadder today, as one of the instrument’s chief innovators and influences is gone. B.B. King died on Thursday in Las Vegas at 89. The legendary blues musician was hospitalized for dehydration and complications of diabetes last month, but he died in his sleep at home, according to his attorney Brent Bryson.
“He is now on the other side with Bob Marley, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and many others,” guitarist Carlos Santana says. “His one of a kind sound was an inspiration to an entire generation of musicians, including myself. He will be missed by millions of fans and by countless musicians.”
King’s trademarks were his powerful croon and the staccato-yet-smooth picking style, as well as his hollow-body Gibson guitar, which he named “Lucille.” In his six-decade career, King rose from playing on street corners in Mississippi to headlining stadiums and the White House. His first hit was “Three O’Clock Blues,” which topped the R&B charts in 1952. Others include “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “You Upset Me, Baby” and “The Thrill Is Gone.”
He worked with a wide range of artists, including Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Elton John, U2 and Sheryl Crow, and musicians from Big Daddy Kane to Kendrick Lamar sampled his songs. During his career, he received a list of honors and awards achieved by few artists in any field, such as induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, 15 Grammy Awards including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
King moved to Las Vegas’ Rancho Circle neighborhood in 1975 but was seldom there: He kept up a relentless touring schedule into his 70s. Over the years, King played at many Las Vegas venues, including Caesars Palace, the Desert Inn, his own club Lucille’s in the Mirage and the Big Blues Bender at the Riviera last year.
King is fondly remembered by locals, both as a musician and as a person. Local musician and radio professional Ginger Bruner recalls, “B.B. King was a wonderful man with a sweet, gentle and generous soul. On the occasions that I saw him, he was invariably very kind.”
Hoss of Las Vegas band Franks & Deans says, “I’ve loved his playing since I was a kid. Unmistakable sound. I had the honor of meeting the man once—very polite, he signed my guitar. He will be dearly missed.”
Goodbye, B.B. If there is a heaven, the house band just got a hell of a lot better.