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Blues great B.B. King dies at 89

B.B. King plays his signature guitar "Lucille" in 1989. Photo by Roland Godefroy (Creative Commons).

B.B. King, one of the greatest bluesmen to ever live, has died at age 89. King had been suffering from health issues related to diabetes, and was in hospice care at his home in Las Vegas.

King, wielding his signature instrument “Lucille,” was widely regarded as one of the most influential guitarists of all time. The distinctive style the Mississippi native made famous in the 1950s was an important influence on the development of rock and roll and R&B, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Born Riley B. King in 1925, he adopted the moniker B.B. King in the 1940s, explaining that the B.B. stood for “Blues Boy.” He said that his guitar’s name was inspired by a woman who sparked a fight between two men that led to a building starting on fire; after King ran into the fire to rescue his guitar, he named it Lucille forevermore.

Eric Clapton was among the generation of blues-influenced British rockers who venerated King. Clapton, who collaborated with King on projects including the 2000 album Riding with the King, called King “without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced.” Writer Peter Guralnick has cited the “urbanity” of King’s style: King’s role in adapting the raw blues to a smoother, radio-friendly style—without sacrificing any soul—helped to vastly expand the genre’s audience.

King’s stamina as a performer was remarkable: as recently as ten years ago he was playing 300 shows a year, and even after cutting back, until his health failed last year he was still playing about 100 shows a year. His life was the stuff of legend: from humble roots as the son of Delta sharecroppers, King became one of the world’s most recognizable musicians. He married twice; legally single since 1966, he said he fathered 15 children by 15 different women.

King also owned blues clubs across America, released dozens of albums, and won 15 standard Grammys in addition to a special Hall of Fame Award (for “The Thrill is Gone”) and a Lifetime Achievement Award. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, earned Kennedy Center Honors, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.