Friends, family, fans gather to honor B.B. King

B.B. King, the legendary guitarist whose expressive style brought blues from the fringe to the mainstream, was eulogized Saturday as a musical icon and loving patriarch during a memorial service.

The 15-time Grammy Award and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner who died May 14 at age 89 at his home in Las Vegas was remembered for his influence on rock guitarists and spreading his ideas to new generations.

Guitarists Carlos Santana and Richie Sambora were among the family, friends and fans paying their respects in a sanctuary at Palm Mortuary Downtown packed with several hundred people.

“We are here to celebrate the life, the legacy of Riley ‘B.B.’ King,” said the Rev. Pamela Myrtis Mason of the Bethel A.M.E. Church of Leavenworth, Kan.

Minutes later, Mason brought the hundreds in attendance to their feet in a rousing standing ovation after she said, “Then why don’t you put your hands together for the King of the Blues?”

Testimonials from King’s children and grandchildren provided the most stirring moments of the service as they talked about how the music icon showered them with love and support.

Numerous speakers talked about how King’s passing was an opportunity for them to come together, a reference to how some family members are feuding with LaVerne Toney, his longtime business agent and executor of his estate.

The room was dominated by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who one speaker said numbers 15, 35 and 45, respectively.

“My grandfather was king,” said Landra Williams, the daughter of King’s daughter Karen Williams. “Not just king of the blues or Riley King, but king of our family. In the moments we shared with him, he cultivated a different, special relationship with each one of us.”

King took more pride in his family than he did in compliments of his music or performances. To the grandchildren, the grandfatherly figure eclipsed the musical legend.

“He did boast about things, and that’s when his grandkids were around,” Leonard King Jr. said. “He was our grandfather first and foremost who just happened to be B.B. King.”

Others recalled how he was a champion of education, not just encouraging them to go to school, but paying the college expenses for those accepted to institutes of higher education.

The speeches were punctuated by tears and laughter, and B.B. King’s accomplishments and lyrics were interspersed throughout.

“He was gracious enough to allow me to meet kings, presidents, a prime minister, a pope and a host of other ambassadors and diplomats worldwide,” King’s grandson Kevin Williams said. “If you are determined and with hard work, you too can go to 91 different countries. You too can meet the president. You too can give guitars to the pope. You too can meet prime ministers.”

King, a Las Vegas resident since 1975, played his last show Oct. 3 at Chicago’s House of Blues. He had been in home hospice care after suffering from dehydration and had been living with Type II diabetes for decades.

Sambora, the lead guitarist of Bon Jovi, and King’s longtime drummer Tony Coleman were among the musicians who spoke about how the pioneering musician also was gracious and accessible.

“I’m a guy who comes from a place where I always wanted to play rock music, but I grew up on the blues,” Sambora said. “B.B. was so positive, so encouraging, the sweetest man.”

Support staff would finish cleaning up after a concert, and King would still be off to the side, signing autographs and posing for pictures.

“He was always patient. He fired me five times,” Coleman said, pausing for laughter. “But he hired me six times.”

King was huge, but he preferred playing small, intimate venues.

After Saturday’s service, fans continued to talk about the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s great contributions to music and his humility and ability to reach people.

“As an entertainer, being able to connect with people who are really, really close to you is very important because you can feed off what they are feeling at that moment,” said blues guitarist Wayne Baker Brooks, the son of Lonnie Brooks, who spent the summer of 1993 on a national tour with King. “You can see that emotion, and you can feel it resonate.

“B.B. King was a master at that.”

Contact Steven Moore at smoore@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4563.

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