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Passings: B.B. King (1925 - 2015)

One of the greatest blues men to ever live and the ultimate ambassador for the genre, B.B. King, died on Thursday night at his home in Las Vegas. He was 89.

King has suffered from Type II diabetes for almost two decades and had been suffering from side effects of the disease in recent years. He cancelled his fall tour after he became ill from dehydration and exhaustion.

Born Riley B. King, B.B. lived his early life on a cotton plantation near Indianola, Mississippi where his parents were sharecroppers. When his mother left, he moved in with his grandmother who raised him.

Like so many of the great bluesmen, King received much of his early musical experience performing in area churches. At the age of 21, he went to Memphis with his first cousin, Bukka White and, two years later, found himself performing on Sonny Boy Williamson's radio program.

King became popular enough locally that he received his own radio program, the Sepia Swing Club, on Memphis station WDIA.It was there that he was given the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy" which eventually became "Blues Boy" and "B.B.".

B.B.'s first record, Miss Martha King, was issued in 1949 on Bullet Records which led to his signing to RPM Records where many of his new sides were produced by Sam Phillips. After a half dozen releases that failed to chart, he finally had his commercial breakthrough with the Lowell Fulson song Three O'Clock Blues which went to number 1 on the R&B chart in 1951.

Three O'Clock Blues was the first of 71 hits that King had on the R&B chart that included such classics as You Know I Love You (1952 / #1 R&B), Please Love Me (1953/ #1 R&B), Everyday I Have the Blues (1955 / #8 R&B), Paying the Cost to Be the Boss (1968 / #10 R&B / #39 Pop) and The Thrill is Gone (1970 / #3 R&B / #15 Pop).

King was always known as relentless in his work ethic. In 1956 alone, he played 342 shows, had three recording sessions and started his own label. Even in this decade, King was still playing over 200 shows per year.

While B.B. always had a huge audience in the R&B community, he upped his popularity with the rest of the music world in the late-60's when he started performing with popular rock acts. In 1967, he opened for Moby Grape and the Steve Miller Band at San Francisco's Fillmore and, in 1969, he went on the road with the Rolling Stones on their 1969 American tour. Two years later, he won the first of his 15 Grammy awards for The Thrill is Gone.

Even late in his career, King had his hands in a wide variety of activities. He recorded ten albums between 1995 and 2008, including his collaboration with Eric Clapton, Riding With the King (2000 / #3). It was also during this time that he opened his first B.B. King's Blues Club in Memphis, a venture that would eventually also open locations in Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Connecticut, Palm Beach, Las Vegas and Orlando.

King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame in 2015. Other honors included the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1987), National Medal of Arts (1990), the National Heritage Fellowship (1991) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2006).

Eric Clapton recorded a video to salute his idol:

Buddy Guy, one of the last of the great early bluesmen left, wrote a heartfelt message on his Facebook page:
This morning, I come to you all with a heavy heart.

BB King was the greatest guy I ever met. 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. He could play so smooth, he didn't have to put on a show. The way BB did it is the way we all do it now. He was my best friend and father to us all.

I'll miss you, B. I love you and I promise I will keep these damn Blues alive. Rest well.

All my love,