The blues world and far beyond is trying to come to terms with the death of B B King, one of the last remaining links with the early days of the blues in Mississippi. King was a towering figure in blues throughout his lifetime and, as we look back on his life, we can see that the contribution he made to not only the blues, but to rock music more generally was enormous. Not bad for a skinny kid from a dirt-poor background in Indianola, Mississippi, raised by his maternal grandmother Elnora Farr, because his father had run off and his was too poor to raise her son.
The honours and awards he garnered were numerous and impressive:
- inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
- inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
- awarded the National Medal of Arts.
- awarded the Kennedy Center Honors, given to recognize “the lifelong accomplishments and extraordinary talents of our nation’s most prestigious artists.”
- awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
He was ranked by TIME magazine No.3 on its list of the 10 best electric guitarists of all time; and no. 6 by Rolling Stone. Any guitarist or blues fan could recognize B B King if they heard just him play just one note, so distinctive was his vibrato, string bending and tone. “BB, anyone could play a thousand notes and never say what you said in one,” tweeted Lenny Kravitz recently. He won numerous Grammys, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.
His collaborations with and mentoring of other blues artists were legion: Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Billy Gibbons, Mark Knopfler, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keith Richards and Joe Bonnamassa, all of whom rated him highly as a player and influence. But his musical influence extended far beyond the blues family – we could mention Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Mavis Staples, Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman to name but a few he mentored or played with.
His duet with U2 on When Love Comes to Town is a classic and introduced him to a whole new set of rock fans. His music has been sample by the likes of 50 Cent and Tony Yayo, Ice Cube, Action Bronson, and rapper O.S.T.R.
B B King’s achievements were more than any one person could reasonably expect in their lifetime – a testimony to his talent, hard work, and positive outlook on life. King contradicted the popular notion that blues music is sad and depressing. Even though he’s singing the blues and the subject matter may be that his baby’s done left him, or the thrill has gone, or his grave needs to be kept clean, in King’s hands the blues work their way through the present troubles with hope that things can get better. As he says in one of his songs, “There must be a better world somewhere.” “Instead of tears,” he sings, “I’ll learn all about laughter.”
There’s a joy that breaks through B B King’s music – as he said, “It’s good for me when I’m feeling bad, and good for me when I’m feeling good.” All the more remarkable, when you consider the trials of King’s life – the poverty of his early background, his failed marriages, difficulties with some of his children, the racial discrimination he had to bear along the way.
As we continue to mourn his passing, we can be grateful for the legacy of music he has left behind in both his recordings and the many musicians he has influenced. He will continue to influence many more.