No single aspect of his talent earned B.B. King the title of “King of the Blues,” a musical throne he occupied modestly but authoritatively for more than half a century.
But to hear many of the world’s greatest musicians talk about Riley B. King, the man born the son of a Mississippi sharecropper on Sept. 16, 1925, and who died Thursday at his home in Las Vegas, the only quality that transcended his prodigious skill in coaxing clarion notes from the electric guitar he called Lucille, or his soul-deep emotive power as a singer, was his generous human spirit.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post said B.B. King recorded a duet with country musician Brad Paisley for King's all-star duet album "80." That duet was for Paisley's 2008 album "Play."
“He in a way was what Bill Monroe was in bluegrass, and I mean this in most respectful way: He was the face of the blues,” said Vince Gill, 20-time Grammy Award-winning guitarist, singer and songwriter. “He was probably the most influential blues man, maybe ever. He had such a gentlemanly quality about him, and that always struck me as really, really important. This man, as famous as he was, for all the accolades, what struck me was the gentlemanliness he had, the kindness.”
In a video selfie posted early Friday, Eric Clapton said, “He was a beacon for all of us who loved this kind of music and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.... I want to thank him for all the inspiration and the encouragement he gave me as a player over the years, and the friendship we enjoyed. There’s not a lot left to say because his music is almost a thing of the past now and there are not many left that play it in the pure way that B.B. did."
Indeed, few musicians in any genre have ever created a sound and an approach to their instrument as instantly identifiable as the one honed over more than seven decades by King.
“The tone he got out of that guitar, the way he shook his left wrist, the way he squeezed the strings ... man, he came out with that and it was all new to the whole guitar-playin' world,” said Buddy Guy -- King’s fellow blues guitarist, singer and longtime friend -- in a statement. “He could play so smooth, he didn't have to put on a show. The way B.B. did it is the way we all do it now.”
Growing up during the Depression, King often recalled picking 500 pounds of cotton per day for a wage of 35 cents per 100 pounds picked. He witnessed firsthand the racism of the Deep South, the experience of which was part of what motivated him to move north to pursue music, after discovering on Beale Street in Memphis that he could make more money in one night playing guitar and singing than he earned picking cotton for a week.
But he typically spoke softly about his choice not to focus on injustice in his own life.
“The bad times I had in my early years ... ,” he told The Times in 2005, his voice trailing off. “People have been so good to me the last 40 or 50 years that I forgot 'em. I really forgot 'em. For me to think about them, somebody's gotta talk about it -- the segregated era and the many things that happened.
“I finally learned that drinking out of a white fountain -- the water tastes just as good out of the black one,” he said. “I didn't notice the difference.”
That was a reflection of the kindheartedness so many of his peers remember of him.
“He was a little bit of a contradiction,” said country singer Brad Paisley, who recorded a duet with King for Paisley's 2008 album "Play." “As much as he was known for playing the blues, this is one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. There was such a light spirit to him, a great sparkle.
“Obviously he has a past that he channels and sings from that place where things are not quite right,” Paisley said. “But he was one of these people who did not allow that to come into play in his life. He liked to make friends, he liked to laugh, he liked to tell jokes. He would get on stage and say, ‘The blues can be happy.’”
One of his guitar-playing hallmarks was musical economy -- he often appeared to be on a quest for one right note, rather than on a mission to spew out as many as humanly possible.
“He could do more with a short-stated phrase than most could do with the calendar and the alphabet combined,” said ZZ Top guitarist Billy F. Gibbons. “It’s uncertain to me if that was a well-calculated, planned posture. I would rather think the naturalness of his gift was honored by just letting it fly … Myself, all the British guys, the Mike Bloomfields, count ‘em -- we’re all lucky to be interpreters. B.B. was an originator.”
Likewise, he was revered among other musicians as a singer, although much of the public’s attention was focused on his singular guitar-playing style. He was a master at channeling the deep pain of loss, of course, but was equally convincing when he was playful, coy, seductive, perplexed or celebratory.
“Oftentimes people overlook that he’s such an amazing singer,” said singer, guitarist and songwriter Bonnie Raitt. “He’s as influential as a singer as he was as a guitar player. It’s because of his eloquence and his soul as a singer, the way he interprets a lyric. The way he plays his voice is as intrinsic to who he is an artist as who he is in his [guitar-]playing. Whether it’s heartache or anger or joy, it’s that passion that he builds and builds, then pulls back and waits, and then it erupts.
“As with all the greatest artists,” Raitt said, “he doesn’t think about it -- it just pours out of him.”
Whatever came forth from King, it connected with a broad swath of listeners and peers, taking his music far beyond the confines of the world of blues aficionados.
“B.B. King taps into something universal,” Clapton told The Times a decade ago. “He can't be confined to any one genre. That's why I've called him a 'global musician.'"
As Paisley put it: “He transcended what can typically remain a little more under the radar. He really appealed to everyone who ever saw him play. There’s nobody who ever saw B.B. King over the course of his career and thought, ‘I don’t get it.’”