The guitar pioneer died last night (May 14) leaving behind one hell of a blues legacy. But how much do you know about King’s life and career? From his first ever guitar to a surreal guest spot on kids cartoon Cow and Chicken and beyond, here’s all you need to know about the great man…
BB King was born Riley B. King in 1925 on a plantation in Mississippi, to sharecroppers Albert and Nora Ella King. After learning his craft on street corners for pocket change, in 1946 he left for thriving musical city Memphis to stay with his cousin, Booker White, a celebrated blues guitarist in his own right who had gifted BB his first guitar as a child.
King's first big break came when he was awarded his own ten-minute slot on Memphis radio station WDIA. 'The King's Spot' as it came to be known, was an instant hit. BB's radio moniker was originally 'Beale Street Blues Boy' but was soon shortened to 'Blues Boy King' then eventually 'BB King.'
King scored his first number one in the R&B charts in 1952 with '3 O'Clock Blues'.
Throughout the 1950s, King toured relentlessly on the so-called "chitlin' circuit" - the network of juke joints, small cafes and church halls that made up the backbone of the R&B underground. In 1957 alone, he performed a total of 340 times.
In the mid 1950s, King ran back into a burning concert hall in Arkansas to rescue his guitar, only narrowly escaping death. Allegedly the fire had started after a fight broke out over a woman named Lucille, when one of the brawling men upended a kerosene stove. After hearing the story King decided to name his salvaged 6-string, and each successive Gibson guitar after that day, after the woman.
By the end of the 1950s, King had a string of hits under his belt, including the likes of 'Sweet Little Angel', 'Bad Luck' and 'Woke Up This Morning'.
By the mid 1960s, a host of influential rock guitarists who had been directly influenced by King - Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Stevie Ray Vaughn amongst others - began vocalising the debt the rock and roll generation owed to the bluesman. "I think he's the best blues guitarist in the world," Clapton told Rolling Stone. It was around this time that BB earned the title King Of Blues.
Despite winning 15 Grammys throughout his career, King's only success in the pop charts came in 1970 with 'The Thrill Is Gone', which reached number 15.
King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. The following year, his duet with U2 on the track 'When Love Comes To Town' introduced the blues musician to a whole new generation of listeners.
Proof that the blues musician never took himself too seriously - in the 1990s, King voiced a character in the final episode of surreal children's cartoon, Cow And Chicken.
In 2005, King celebrated his 80th birthday with an extensive American tour and an album of collaborations, entitled 'B.B. King and Friends: 80'. The musician's 41st studio album, it featured a variety of stars including Elton John, Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison and also Clapton, who sings a duet with BB on a reworked version of King staple 'The Thrill is Gone'.
In 2012, BB performed in a one-off televised blues show from The White House, presented by Barack Obama. Shouting to the president "You can do it!", the bluesman managed to lure Obama onto stage for a duet of 'Sweet Home Chicago'.
His death on May 14 2015 of diabetes-related illness at his home in Las Vegas, aged 89, sparked tributes from everyone from Wu-Tang Clan to Ringo Starr, sending shockwaves through the music world. Rest in peace, big guy.