King finally started showing signs of his age last year after decades of living with Type II diabetes.
A shaky show in St. Louis prompted his reps to issue an apology for “a performance that did not match Mr. King’s usual standard of excellence.” He fell ill in October after a show at Chicago’s House of Blues due to dehydration and exhaustion, prompting a rare cancellation of the remainder of his tour.
He was hospitalized for dehydration April in Las Vegas, a long way from his modest roots as the son of a sharecropper.
King was born on September 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation between Indianola and what is now Itta Bena, Mississippi. He sang with church choirs as a child and learned basic guitar chords from his uncle, a preacher. In his youth, he played on street corners for dimes, saying he earned more in one night singing on the corner than he did in one week working in the cotton field.
Beale Street Blues Boy
He enlisted in the Army during World War II but was released because he drove a tractor, an essential homefront occupation.
In 1947, he hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, home to a thriving music scene that supported aspiring black performers. He stayed with his cousin Bukka White, one of the most celebrated blues performers of his time, who schooled King further in the art of the blues.
King took the Beale Street Blues Boy, or BB for short, as a disc jockey for radio station WDIA/AM Memphis.
He got his first big break in 1948 by performing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program out of West Memphis, leading to steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis, and a 10-minute spot on WDIA.
As “King’s Spot” grew in popularity on WDIA, King shortened “Beale Street Blues Boy” to “Blues Boy King,” and eventually B.B. King.
His ascent continued in 1949 with his first recordings, “Miss Martha King/Take a Swing with Me” and “How Do You Feel When Your Baby Packs Up and Goes/I’ve Got the Blues.” His first hit record “Three O’clock Blues” was released in 1951 and stayed on the top of the charts for four months.