He was unlike any other performer that ever graced a stage in Las Vegas, but not simply because of his unique musical style or his immeasurable influence. While not linked to the city in the sense of a Sinatra or Elvis, B.B. King’s relationship with Las Vegas stems back just as far and ran even deeper, even if rarely reflected in glowing neon.
King moved here from Manhattan in 1975 amid dreams of “sunshine and space,” as he recounted in his 1996 autobiography Blues All Around Me, and Las Vegas remained his home up until his death May 14 at the age of 89. Yet despite having a legend living in our midst for the last 40 years, we never really got the chance to embrace the beloved bluesman as one of our own.
That’s because the man born Riley B. King in Itta Bena, Mississippi, on Sept. 16, 1925, was never a resident of Southern Nevada as much as he was a global ambassador of the blues. Even into his 80s, King toured relentlessly, playing more than 250 shows annually. On the rare occasions when he did take a break, his tour bus could be seen parked outside his home in Rancho Circle, the only outward sign that he was back in town.
King began coming to Las Vegas in the 1950s, when segregation forced him to play all-black clubs on the edge of town. When Frank Sinatra began headlining at Caesars Palace in the late 1960s, he helped King land a lounge gig there at Nero’s Nook. It was a personal honor for King, a self-proclaimed “Sinatra nut” whose favorite album was the Chairman of the Board’s 1955 classic In the Wee Small Hours. King also played the Las Vegas Hilton lounge while Elvis Presley headlined in the showroom in the 1970s, but his performances in his adopted hometown after that were usually one-nighters while on tour, as well as the occasional show at his eponymous blues club at the Mirage, which closed in November 2012 after four years of operation.
Perhaps King’s propensity for life on the road underscored his continual quest for acceptance and adoration after losing his mother and grandmother as a child. It was while working at radio station WDIA in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1949 that King was dubbed the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which was shortened to “Blues Boy” and eventually “B.B.” He played to black audiences early in his career, but fell out of style with younger blacks when rock ’n’ roll exploded on the scene in the 1950s and soul music took over the airwaves in the ’60s. It was only when white hippie kids began coming to his shows in the late 1960s and young guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Johnny Winter began praising him that the 15-time Grammy Award winner began to find the crossover success that would help define him.
Toward the end of his life, King’s shows were virtually color-blind, the audience a societal melting pot that shared a love of the man and his music. I had the fortune of seeing King perform at the 2008 Bonnaroo music festival plus the last half-dozen shows he played in Vegas, and while his energy onstage ebbed with each subsequent performance, the audience’s outpouring of affection grew each time with the realization that it could be the final time any of us got to hear King make his trademark guitar “Lucille” sing with joy. And he, in turn, basked in the crowd’s unabashed admiration.
His last local performance came at the Big Blues Bender festival at the Riviera on September 26, just one week before he cut his show at Chicago’s House of Blues short and left the stage for the last time. His final show here was a bit ironic, as King performed in Las Vegas for a largely global audience instead of leaving town to deliver the blues to the people. It seemed a fitting farewell, because even though he was a Las Vegan for the last 40 years, he really was King of the world.
3-7 p.m. May 22 at Palm South Jones Mortuary, 1600 S. Jones Blvd., 702-464-8420.
Celebrating the Life and Musical Talent of the Legendary King of the Blues BB King
8 p.m. May 22 at Brooklyn Bowl at The LINQ, free, 702-862-2695, vegas.brooklynbowl.com.