But this King, B.B. King, did so much more for his home state of Mississippi. As a teenager in the early 1940s, King’s gospel group was featured on WGRM radio in Greenwood. He would go on to be a disc jockey at WDIA in Memphis, where he gave himself the name the Beale Street Blues Boy.
We knew who B.B. King was in my house. One of our favorite episodes of Sanford and Son, of course, featured B.B. King and his unrequited love for Fred’s nemesis, Aunt Esther. King’s kind voice, big smile, and his being from Mississippi made him feel like he was a family member.
This felt all the more real when I left Mississippi for the first time. I flew without family or friend to Chicago. I was one of two Mississippi delegates to the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Conference. The first person I met when I got to the hotel was a young black kid, the Illinois delegate to the conference. Once he found out I was from Mississippi, he told me B.B. King was playing in the hotel ballroom that very night.
Already homesick and feeling bold, I convinced my new friend to see if we could get into what looked to be a pretty raucous party. The lady taking tickets looked suspect at the 14-year-old white kid with a southern accent and funky cow-lick. Then a man in a shiny copper-colored suit heard me tell the lady that I was from the Mississippi Delta. He took my arm and pulled me into the ballroom, deep into a thick crowd of honest-to-God party people. The boy from Illinois had a hard time keeping up.
The guitar thundered and popped, interspersed with B.B.’s booming voice. Somehow we made it to the front of the stage. I was looking straight up at King, masterfully influencing his guitar, Lucille. “B.B.! B.B.!” the man in the copper suit yelled up to him while pointing at me, “This boy here is from Mississippi! The Mississippi Delta!”
He opened up his eyes, looked down at me, smiled and nodded. My face got a heavy sprinkling of his sweat and afro sheen. I had been baptized by Mississippi’s greatest living artist and performer and I still rejoice. I got to listen to three or four songs before the man in the copper suit decided it would be best for the kids to leave. It was already past curfew for the youth conference and some members of the audience were carrying on like crazy old women at a Tom Jones concert.
B.B. had the “it” factor and it’s certain many of the men and women in that Chicago audience had been watching B.B. perform live since his younger days. Years later, I traveled the world for work and fun. Most places I went, B.B. had already visited or I saw posters announcing an upcoming show or blues festival. For five decades, King was our nation’s most tireless cultural ambassador. Crowds loved him. I caught up with King for performances in Greece, Uruguay, Japan, and few places closer to home.
It was my honor to be Master of Ceremonies at several of the B.B. King Homecoming Festivals in Indianola. I loved taking international guests and visitors from states like New York and California to the festival. A few times I was able to convince folks to stay up really late and attend B.B.’s 2:00 a.m. concert at Club Ebony. After a long evening of performing in the Delta heat, nearly half the event at Club Ebony was just B.B. chilling out, telling stories and talking about music.
It was at one of these more intimate engagements I realized “The King of the Blues” moniker given to Riley King didn’t come close to describing this man and what he meant to music and to Mississippi.
He loved both. He came from a gospel tradition linked closely with the delta blues. He loved his guitar, Lucille, and played her with more than just great technique and acumen. King shared his soul and his joy for music every time he bent a string. King was transcendent.
Dr. Alphonso Sanders, Chair of Fine Arts and Director of the B.B. King Recording Studio at Mississippi Valley State University attributes King’s transcendency to his intellectual interest in music.
“B.B. would fill up his band with trained jazz musicians, because he enjoyed music beyond the blues and he never stopped learning,” Sanders said over the weekend. “He would surround himself with all of these experimental musicians, it made it more fun for him. I always found B.B. King to be a progressive musician with insights far beyond the blues.”
King was certainly influenced by the old bluesmen: Sonny Boy Williamson, Lonnie Johnson, and King’s uncle, Bukka White. King managed to do even more with the music and his growing popularity. As delta blues gained more appeal, young aspiring blues artists from all over the world sought out the “King of the Blues.” What they found was an artist always in transition and not constrained by his Delta blues heritage. They heard a musician making music that was fun for himself and those around him. They discovered an artist who was bigger than blues.
King was also bigger than Mississippi. In spite of growing up during the difficult Jim Crow era, King followed his dream. He was told he was worthless and would amount to nothing due to his race, but his affable style and true compassion would not allow him to become bitter about his circumstances. Yet, King was unflinching and unrepentant when speaking to those circumstances through song.
He could be “brutally frank,” according to Ole Miss professor of Southern Studies, Adam Gussow, “about the violence and disrespect inflicted on black folk in Mississippi. He recorded a handful of songs that white artists can’t do.” Lyrics from songs like his “Why I Sing the Blues,” Gussanow says, “speak pointedly to the trails of black history.”
King lived through many of those same trails and he gloriously overcame them. We’ve had some beautiful people come from our state, even a few Miss Americas, but Mississippians should forever be grateful to B.B. King, the man who shared our best face to the whole wide wonderful world.
Mississippi Tourism Director, Malcom White called King “Irreplaceable.” White, who also headed up the Mississippi Arts Commission and worked in the private sector booking musical acts and artists for Hal and Mal’s in Jackson and other venues, said Mississippi’s brand and image has B.B. King written all over it.
White believes Mississippi’s rich musical story could not have been told and shared without B.B. King. “Without him and his willingness to help, there is no Mississippi Blues Trail,” White said. “There is no B.B. King Museum. There is no Grammy Museum. He gave so much of himself to our state.”
There has already been an uptick in visits to Indianola, according to Alan Hammons of Hammons and Associates. Hammons helped to create the B.B. King Museum and serves on the Board of Directors. He made the comparison to Elvis Presley’s Graceland which still brings in over half a million tourists each year. “There is another chapter to be told.” Hammons said. “We will continue to celebrate King’s legacy for generations to come.”
Professor Alphonso Sanders expressed gratitude for King’s legacy of giving, particularly his willingness to lend his name to the music studio at Mississippi Valley State. “He has enabled Valley to become iconic. He had such of love for his home and its people. His heart was so giving.”
He could have easily chosen to give up on his home state. Malcolm White alluded to King’s experience with racism in Mississippi. “He knew the darkness, but he helped us take the negative of the blues and turn it into what is now acknowledged as the birthplace of American Music. He loved Mississippi so much, when he had every right to say to hell with it. He was always willing to work with folks who wanted to help Mississippi change and rethink itself.”
We must continue to rethink Mississippi. Such thinking demands a realistic assessment of our present and our past. Only then can we move forward together. King never projected shame or contempt for his Mississippi roots. He was so much better than that. A progressive-minded musician and our state’s greatest ambassador, B.B. King made Mississippi better.
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