B.B. King left a legacy as America’s Musical Goodwill Ambassador to the world: There’s going to be a killer blues session in heaven tonight

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In the wake of B.B. King’s death, the mass media has focused on his legacy as the “King of the Blues,” which was earned through hard work, song writing, distinctive singing, lyrical guitar playing style and a unique ability to blend the blues with other musical styles. However, King’s most significant legacy was his struggle against hardship and poverty to become America’s musical goodwill ambassador to the world.

Blues legend B.B. King performs at the 2011 National Memorial Day Concert at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 29, 2011.

Blues legend B.B. King performs at the 2011 National Memorial Day Concert at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 29, 2011.

“B.B. King was born a sharecropper’s son in Mississippi, came of age in Memphis, Tennessee, and became the ambassador who brought his all-American music to his country and the world,” said President Barak Obama in a statement on April 15. “No one worked harder than B.B. No one inspired more up-and-coming artists. No one did more to spread the gospel of the blues. There’s going to be one killer blues session in heaven tonight.”

B.B. King died at the age of 89, while sleeping at his home in Las Vegas at about 9:40 p.m. on April 14, 2015. King continued to work until recent health problems surfaced on Oct 3, 2014. He did not feel well enough to finish his performance, at the House of Blues in Chicago. A doctor found King was dehydrated and exhausted. King cancelled the eight remaining shows of his 2014 tour, which had 70 scheduled dates. He lived with type 2 diabetes for about 30 years ago and died from a series of mini strokes. King was also hospitalized in March due to dehydration and exhaustion.

This was not the first time President Obama has honoured B.B. King for his legacy of overcoming adversity and representing America around the world. King was invited to the White House in February 2012 to perform at a concert called Red, White and Blues, which celebrated blues music and Black History Month. Buddy Guy coaxed Obama to sing a few lines of “Sweet Home Chicago”, while Mick Jagger gave him the microphone. This video shows Obama singing a short duet with B.B. King.

King’s first trip to the White House came during George Bush’s 1989 inauguration. The newly-elected president joined him onstage, playing a white Fender guitar. Under the Clinton administration, King was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors during a ceremony at the White House. In 2001, Clinton joined King onstage playing the saxophone at an event in Beverly Hills. George W. Bush pays tribute to the legacy of King in the following video. King is being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in December 2006. The medal is the highest civilian honor the U.S. government offers.

King achieved international fame over a six and a half decade career, but his commercial breakthrough occurred in 1968 at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. When King arrived, he called his road manager to say, “I think they booked us in the wrong place.” King was confused, because he saw “longhaired white people” lining up outside. Promoter Bill Graham introduced him to the sold-out crowd of enthusiastic, appreciative, younger, new fans. Everybody stood up out of respect. This was the first time King got a standing ovation before playing. He was overwhelmed and broke into tears of joy.

Poster of B.B. Kings first concert at the Fillmore in San Fransisco in 1969. Photo Credit - Smithsonian Institute

Poster of B.B. Kings first concert at the Fillmore in San Fransisco in 1969. Photo Credit – Smithsonian Institute

This was a turning point in his B.B. King’s career, because blues had been falling out of favour with African-American audiences, since the late 1950’s. The performance at the Fillmore marks a watershed in the expansion of King’s audience worldwide, and he toured the world for next 47 years. Charles Sawyer, the author of B.B. King’s 1980 biography “The Arrival of B.B. King,” said King performed 100 nights a year well into his 80s and has done about 18,000 concerts in 90 countries. This means he played more than 300 shows a year for three decades.

Sawyer observed in 1995 that King had taken over the position of America’s unofficial musical ambassador of good will from Louis Armstrong, who left the post vacant after his death in 1971. Armstrong brought ensemble jazz from the saloon to the silver screen and onto the diplomatic circuit where it became a symbol of America in the 20th century. Armstrong and King both shifted the cultural center of gravity of the world by their contributions to American music.

Several other significant events set the stage for King’s role as a musical ambassador. In 1969, King opened for the Rolling Stones on 18 of their American concerts and he appeared on The Tonight Show. After the Rolling Stones featured King, he released “The Thrill is Gone” in late 1969. King performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1970, giving him exposure to 50 million viewers. Finally, in 1970, “The Thrill Is Gone,” reached #3 on the R&B charts and #15 on the pop charts. The song was King’s first crossover hit, which also earned him the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

King played “The Thrill Is Gone” during a concert in Kinshasa, Zaire, as part of the build up to the world heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. King gave one of the most thrilling performances of his life before a crowd of 80,000 people. He was accompanied by James Brown and other African-American artists, who reveled in their return to the motherland.

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The rise to fame for King began with the recording of “Three O’Clock Blues,” which entered Billboard magazine’s Rhythm and Blues charts in December 1951 .The song spent 17 weeks on the charts, including five weeks at number one and was one of the top-selling R&B records of 1952. “3 O’Clock Blues” launched King’s career and provided his first opportunity to gain a national audience. The song was first recorded by Lowell Fulson in 1946 and was released in 1948. It was Fulson’s first hit.

King had a major breakthrough in 1949, when he cut his first four tracks for Jim Bulleit’s Bullet Records and signed a contract with the Bihari Brothers’ RPM Records. The Biharis recorded “Three ‘Clock Blues in 1951. The first big break for King came in 1948, in Memphis, when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on WDIA. As a result, King got a steady engagement at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis and a 10-minute spot on WDIA. King was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, but as his popularity on WDIA increased, he shortened the name to “Blues Boy King” and B.B. King.

King married his first wife, Martha Denton on Nov. 11, 1944 in his hometown of Indianola. He hitchhiked to Memphis the first time in May, 1946, after wrecking his boss’s tractor. Once in Memphis, King found his cousin Bukka White, who was a country blues guitarist. White taught King the finer points of playing blues guitar for ten months. After returning home to be with his wife Martha, King returned to Memphis in late 1948.

B.B. King in 1971. Photo Credit - Wikimedia Commoms

B.B. King in 1971. Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commoms

Riley B. King was born on Sept. 16, 1925, to Albert and Nora Ella King, in Berclair, Miss., a hamlet outside the small town of Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta. Albert and Nora Ella King were hardworking sharecropping farmers, who had lived in Mississippi all their lives. Nora left her husband Albert for another man when Riley was 4 years old, but she died five years later. Riley was raised by his maternal grandmother Elnora.

Riley went to Elkhorn School, which was right across the road from and affiliated with the Elkhorn Baptist Church. Nora and Elnora were very religious and Nora sang in the choir. The minister of the church, Archie Fair, taught Riley how to play the guitar and he became an important part of choir.

Young King began listening to the music at his Great Aunt Mima’s house, where he heard the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson on records. King dropped out of school in tenth grade and earned a living picking cotton. In his youth, King played on street corners for change and earned more in one night singing than he did in one week working in the cotton field.

BB King' marries Sue Hall in June 1958. Photo Credit - Smithsonian

BB King’ marries Sue Hall in June 1958. Photo Credit – Smithsonian

When “Three O’Clock Blues” became a hit in 1952, King divorced Martha, after eight years of marriage. One of the reasons Martha divorced King was because he was performing an average of 275 one night stands every year, all over the country. King was a major star when he married his second wife, Sue Hall, on June 4, 1958. He was divorced a second time in 1966.

King did not have any children with his wives, but he fathered 15 children with 15 different women. He is survived by 11 children. Three of them had recently petitioned to take over his affairs, asserting that King’s manager, Laverne Toney, was taking advantage of him. A Las Vegas judge rejected their petition in May, 2015.

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