The blues has given modern music any number of iconic individuals over the course of the past 100 years, but none were more beloved and respected than Riley "Blues Boy" King. Sadly, though, the legendary guitarist died on Thursday night at his Las Vegas home.
He was born the son of a sharecropper, but he became a revered influence for virtually every guitarist who followed in his wake, from Eric Clapton to Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall, and Keith Richards, who all professed their admiration for his singular style.
By the late ‘60s, King had won over rock audiences by opening for the Rolling Stones on their 1969 American tour and appearing at such bastions of hipness as the Fillmores East and West. With his beloved guitar Lucille in tow and a well-known standard, “The Thrill Is Gone,” a guaranteed crowd pleaser, he was looked on as a superstar by American audiences for the last half century.
In his nearly 70 years as a bluesman, King, who would have turned 90 in September, recorded more than 50 albums and continued to tour well into his 80s, often performing more than 250 concerts a year. However, especially early in his career, he had a particular attachment to Miami — and Overtown, in particular.
In the days of segregation in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Overtown was the center of the local black community and home to numerous theaters and nightclubs that offered the leading African-American entertainers of the era places to play when the glittery haunts of Miami Beach were mostly still off limits. He frequently performed at the Lyric Theater, a venue that dated from 1913, as well as the neighborhood’s nightclubs, like the Harlem Square.
Blues Boy and Lucille in South Florida, 2008.
Photo by Sayre Berman
“Places like Memphis were meant to record records, but Overtown was a place for musicians to jam,” local saxophonist Charles Austin once recalled. “It was like an oasis for musicians. Black, white, it didn’t matter.”
In fact, Austin had his own connection with King: as a teenager, he toured with King’s band and even appeared with him on the nationally broadcasted Ed Sullivan Show.
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Another well-respected Miami artist who frequented Overtown, the masterful R&B guitarist and songwriter Little Beaver, remembered meeting the master musician one night at the Tiki Club in Coconut Grove. “We had B.B. King come there one night,” he told an interviewer. “We were the house band and B.B. was the star. “
Yours truly also had the opportunity to meet Mr. King in the late ‘70s when I was doing radio promotion for his longtime record label, ABC. He graciously agreed to share his time with me and a local radio programmer, who was an obsessed fan, prior to his show at a Miami Beach hotel. He was as gracious and friendly as could be, totally unaffected by any superstar stature. Artists like that always stand out, and King was no different. Rightfully dubbed the King of the Blues, he demonstrated that night that he was also a giant when it came to his graciousness.
B.B. King was 89 years old. And he will be greatly missed. Long live the King of the Blues.