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The king of blues

Andy Stonehouse/Special to the Vail Daily

Given the choice of a life path to follow, one could only hope to have even a bit of the longevity and artistic mastery that’s typified the 77-year journey of master bluesman B.B. King.From his childhood beginnings as a dirt-poor Mississippi sharecropper to a decades-long musical career that’s seen him embraced by artists from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton, King remains an original – a class act and legendary guitarist who only seems to improve with age.King, who appears with his full band July 3 at the Ford Amphitheater, continues to perform with a grueling yearly schedule that would drain a man half his age. But his pure love for entertaining – paired with a seemingly unstoppable work ethic that’s driven him his entire life – keeps him a musician who’s constantly on the move, despite his advancing years.Troubles with diabetes and bad knees have begun to dog the performer (on his doctor’s orders, he’s been forced to pare back his schedule to only 200 or so shows a year), but don’t expect anything less than 100 percent pure entertainment and soul when King hits the stage with that shiny custom Gibson named Lucille.King has been a virtual blues cornerstone since his first recordings of the early 1950s; his 1952 single “Three O’Clock Blues” topped the R&B charts for 17 weeks. In the half century to follow, he’s released more than 50 albums, netting almost a dozen Grammy Awards in the process, and has been the recipient of more lifetime achievement honors than any other figure in the musical world.Tastes have changed over the years – King himself admits being temporarily left behind in the early 1960s when his brand of traditional Delta blues fell out of favor with younger listeners – but if his more recent projects with musicians including U2 (“When Love Comes to Town,” from 1988’s “Rattle and Hum”) and Clapton (2000’s Grammy-winning album “Riding with the King””) are any evidence, King’s timeless voice and impossible-to-mimic playing style find a fit with nearly every era.Born on a Mississippi cotton plantation in 1925, Riley B. King struggled to survive a childhood marred by back-breaking hard work and the death of his mother. Displaying an early interest in music, and prompted by a friendly plantation owner who let the boy live and work on his own, even advancing King enough cash to buy his first guitar when he was 12, King spent his teen years learning gospel blues and driving a tractor to pay the bills. It was on the streets of Indianola, Miss., playing blues songs for change on the corner, that King first realized he could make a living from music.After World War II, King moved to Memphis to seek his fortune as a guitarist and vocalist. Blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson give King his first break with a spot on his radio show; listener response was strong and King soon landed his own radio show on Memphis’ WDIA. That’s where his original stage monicker, Beale Street Blues Boy King, was boiled down to a simple Blues Boy King – a tag that’s stuck with him the rest of his life.King’s subsequent career has seen him become one of the blues’ longest-running institutions, even giving James Brown a run for the money as the hardest working man in show business (1956, for instance, saw King perform 342 shows). Making a conscious effort to model himself after debonair African-American figures such as Duke Ellington and Nat “King” Cole, King has also long been a picture of sophistication and grace both on and off the stage.In fact, King’s only period of professional unhappiness seems to have occurred in the rock ‘n’ roll-heavy days of the 1960s, when fans both black and white began to turn their back on his straight-ahead blues style, which they viewed as being too firmly rooted in the past. As British Invasion artists such as the Stones, the Who and Eric Burdon and the Animals gradually began to admit the debt they owed to King’s soulful influences, King gradually found himself re-embraced by rock fans. His sold-out 1968 ap


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