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Admirers of legendary bluesman B.B. King pay respects in Las Vegas


AP Photo / John Locher

People wait in line to view the body of B.B. King during a public viewing of the blues legend Friday, May 22, 2015, in Las Vegas.

Updated Friday, May 22, 2015 | 9 p.m.

B.B. King Public Viewing

Rita Washington, facing at right, daughter of B.B. King, embraces mourners waiting in line during a public viewing of the blues legend Friday, May 22, 2015, in Las Vegas. King died last week at 89. Launch slideshow »

For Brainard Hyson, the songs of B.B. King are not as much music as they are pictures painted in notes and bars that seemed to jump to life at the hands of the blues legend and his ever-present guitar, Lucille.

“It was artwork. It was portrait,” said Hyson, who was among hundreds of people who turned out Friday at a public viewing to pay their respects to King, who died May 14 at his Las Vegas home at age 89.

Hyson described himself as an amateur singer and songwriter, “but most of all I’m a blues fan,” he said. King’s music told stories, Hyson said, and he could relate to every one of them.

The line snaked from the chapel at Palm Mortuary and down the sidewalk along Jones Boulevard as people waited to get a final glimpse of King. A Palm official said more than 1,000 people paid their respects during the four-hour viewing. Metro Police closed off a lane of traffic to accommodate the crowd.

Inside, the music icon’s body rested in an open casket with the image of a guitar and the name “Lucille” emblazoned on the inside of the lid.

Two guitars were propped on either side of the casket, which was surrounded by flowers. Video of King and his music played on a screen in the middle of the chapel.

Gloria Whitaker of Las Vegas grew up listening to King’s music, which included songs like “How Blue Can You Get,” “Everyday I Have The Blues” and “Why I Sing The Blues.”

His biggest crossover hit, however, came in 1970 with “The Thrill Is Gone,” which climbed to No. 15 on the pop charts.

“The music B.B. King played, it’s almost like his guitar talked to you,” Whitaker said. “There was something angelic about it. It talked to your soul.”

“People will walk in his footsteps,” Whitaker said. “But will there ever be another one? No.”

As people left the chapel, some paused to take group photos and some dabbed tears from their eyes.

Arthur Perry, 74, of Las Vegas started to cry. “He was kind of like the Satchmo of the guitar,” he said, making reference to jazz trumpet great Louis Armstrong.

“It just seems we keep losing these legends,” said Perry’s wife, Kathleen. “He’s gone, but his music will be here forever.”

Ron Collins, 63, of Las Vegas came to the viewing to pay his respects to King and to be a part of history.

“His music spoke about life. His music was way ahead of his time. He could make that guitar talk — Lucille,” Collins said.

“He touched many people,” said Collins, a fan of King since he was a teen. “He touched my spirit through his music.”

After today’s memorial, daughter Shirley King and other family members hosted a musical tribute for King at the Brooklyn Bowl on the Strip. A memorial was planned for Saturday at Palm Mortuary in downtown Las Vegas.

King was born Riley B. King near Berclair, Miss., on Sept. 16, 1925.

As a young man, he left Mississippi for Memphis, Tenn., where he hosted a radio show during the day and played music at the clubs on Beale Street at night. On the radio, King was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, which eventually was shortened to B.B. and stuck.

King was a member of the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

It was not uncommon for him to spend 250 to 300 days a year touring, even in his latter years. One of his last local performances was at the Veil Pavilion at the Silverton on Nov. 25, 2011.

King was married twice and had 15 natural and adopted children.

His body will be flown to Memphis on Wednesday and taken to Handy Park on Beale Street for a tribute. After that, the body will be taken to Indianola, Miss., where there will be another public viewing on May 29.

The funeral will be May 30 at Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church. King will be buried at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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