B.B. King, Legendary Blues Guitarist, Dies At 89 : The Two-Way The great bluesman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and toured relentlessly his whole life, wringing peerless emotion out of every note he played.
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B.B. King, Legendary Blues Guitarist, Dies At 89

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B.B. King, Legendary Blues Guitarist, Dies At 89

B.B. King, Legendary Blues Guitarist, Dies At 89

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Wish this news wasn't true - news that B.B. King is dead. So let's put it this way - Lucille is an orphan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE THRILL IS GONE")

B.B. KING: (Singing) The thrill is gone. The thrill has gone away.

INSKEEP: Lucille was the name B.B. King gave to his guitars. He died last night in Las Vegas at 89. NPR's Tom Cole has this appreciation.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: B.B. King didn't just sing and play the blues. He was the guy who got it across to a mainstream audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: I started to feel that I had to be a good entertainer to keep a job. And I'm kind of happy that I developed in my head that I'm never any better than my last concert or my last time I played, so it's like an audition each time.

COLE: That's King on WHYY's Fresh Air in 1996. Humility was his hallmark. It likely came from his upbringing on a Mississippi plantation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: When I was about 7, I chopped cotton. I picked cotton. I helped to plant it. I did everything that the grown-ups do.

COLE: When he wasn't doing that, a little later on he was playing on street corners - blues and gospel - as he told me sitting in his tour bus in 2002.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: People that would request a gospel song would always praise me. They'd say, son, you're good. You sound good. But they didn't ever put anything in the hat (laughter). Well, I had people that would ask me to sing the blues would praise me, pat me on the head and they'd always put something in the hat.

COLE: That sealed it - blues was the way to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE O'CLOCK BLUES")

KING: (Singing) Well now, it's 3 o'clock in the morning and I can't even close my eyes. It's 3 o'clock in the morning, baby. I can't even close my eyes.

COLE: King credited his ability to reach an audience in part to radio. He made his way to Memphis where he landed his own show on WDIA, the first well-known station in the country with an all-black format. He needed an on-air handle. His given name, Riley B. King, became Blues Boy King and finally B.B. His show let him showcase his wide-ranging tastes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: I was crazy about Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, and I loved Louis Jordan. The station was integrated all the time from the time I went there, so I was allowed to play anything I wanted to.

COLE: Those sounds made their way into his own music. His smooth vocals were punctuated by the piercing high notes from his guitar Lucille, a signature you can hear in his straight-up blues and his Louis Jordan swing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALDONIA")

KING: (Singing) Caldonia, Caldonia, what made your big head so hard? I love you. I love you just the same. I'm crazy about you, baby, 'cause Caldonia is your name.

COLE: King's interests extended beyond music, sparked in part by his world tours, as professor William Ferris told NPR in 2002. Ferris founded The Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi and got his friend King to donate his record and book collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WILLIAM FERRIS: What was perhaps most interesting were records on language because when he travels he tries to learn at least a little of the language of the country in which he's traveling. So you see an artist constantly reaching out, constantly learning and broadening his own horizon.

COLE: Even late in life, B.B. King spent close to half the year on the road. He took an active role overseeing his own blues clubs. It was a work ethic instilled from childhood and driven by need. He was committed to paying his band well. He had a large family to support and he wanted to make sure his music was out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: I felt that it was a necessity. I needed to do that to keep the blues alive for a long, long time. So if I'm pretty good at doing what I'm doing then when I go from city to city, people find out that B.B. King is still alive and well and so is the music.

COLE: And thanks to his ability to communicate that passion, and a lot of hard work, B.B. King's music is alive and well. Tom Cole, NPR News.

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