Late Blues Great B.B. King: Legacy Lives On In Mississippi

Outside Indianola, B.B. King was a blues superstar, a guitar legend who inspired Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and countless other musicians. But in this small farming town in north Mississippi, he was known as Mr. Riley. And he’d return here each year to meet with friends and relatives, and to play the blues for townspeople out in the sun on Church Street.

Photo: Mary Andrews /
Anselmo Valencia Tori Amphitheatre, Tucson, Ariz.

“They would come and stand around and listen to him. He would stay there practically all day,” said Ruthie King, a 65-year-old who is not related to the bluesman. “You could hear the guitar all over town because he had an amplifier.”

B.B. King, born as Riley B. King, died at 89 on Thursday at his home in Las Vegas.

Ruthie King said she found out Mr. Riley had died from her son in a text message Friday morning, which referenced the musician’s biggest hit.

“He said ‘Good morning, mom, the thrill is gone,’“ she said.

The future King of the Blues was born in 1925 to sharecropper parents in a long-gone cabin along a creek in Berclair, a community near the tiny town of Itta Bena. His parents soon split, his mother died young and his grandmother then died as well, leaving him to raise and pick an acre of cotton by himself in the even smaller town of Kilmichael.

He eventually joined a cousin in Indianola, where he first gained attention singing gospel on a street corner as a 17-year-old. He later made his name playing in Memphis, Tennessee, and then touring the world. But he always came home.

Ruthie King said she first met the bluesman when she was 6 or 7.  Mr. Riley would go to her mother’s house to visit before performing for the town.

“He would tell his managers or his camp, ‘Hands off. I’m going to Indianola and I’m going to do what I want to do and I’m going to see my friends, don’t bother me,’“ said Bill McPherson, president of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. “It was an exhausting three or four days. He was tough. His endurance was unbelievable.”

Indianola still has just 10,300 people, but for more than three decades, it’s where King hosted the B.B. King Homecoming, a summer music festival that brought big crowds to town.

His life story is told at the museum, which opened here in 2008, attracting visitors from around the world who seek an authentic American roots music experience. But at King’s insistence, the small museum has become a community center, hosting music camps for children, offering docent jobs to young adults, and sponsoring seminars on such topics as controlling diabetes, a disease King had for years.

Photo: Owen Sweeney /
Dar Constitution Hall, Washington, D.C.

Tourists trickled into the museum Friday to pay their respects. Outside, a black ribbon tied in a bow adorned the neck of a statue of King’s guitar “Lucille.” Tourists took pictures posing next to it.

A lot of entertainers “denied where they’re from because they were ashamed of it,” said a longtime King friend, Carver Randle, whose Indianola law office has a mural-sized, black-and-white photo of the young bluesman on an outside wall.

“B.B. has never been ashamed to say he was from Indianola, and he claims Indianola as his home,” Randle said. “So, that stands out in my mind, in letting me know the humility of the man.”

King’s legacy also can be found in a recording studio named in his honor at historically black Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, and in the blues archive at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where King donated about 8,000 of his recordings – mostly 33, 45 and 78 rpm records, but also some Edison wax cylinders. Archive curator Greg Johnson said some of the recordings were of King himself, but many were of other artists King admired, including the Belgian-born guitarist Django Reinhardt. The collection also includes about 50 foreign language courses from which King learned phrases to use on stage during international tours.

“The sheer number of people who have been influenced by him is pretty staggering,” Johnson said. “Also, just his generosity – that sort of transcends everything.”

King kept up a grueling schedule, performing 100 nights a year well into his 80s, nearly 18,000 concerts in 90 countries during his lifetime, author Charles Sawyer, who wrote “The Arrival of B.B. King” in 1980, said Friday. He did it partly because aside from “The Thrill is Gone,” King lacked the kind of big hits that brought in huge royalties. But he also felt responsible for the livelihood of the people who put his concerts together, and because he simply loved connecting with audiences, Sawyer said.

But King kept coming back.

He frequently performed at the annual Medgar Evers Homecoming, a Jackson-area celebration that honors the memory of the Mississippi NAACP leader slain in 1963.

On Feb. 15, 2005, the Mississippi Legislature honored King with resolutions commending his long career and he received a standing ovation in the Senate chamber. The singer pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped away tears.

Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP
A wall mural of B.B. King overlooks a downtown parking area in Indianola, Miss.

“I never learned to talk very well without Lucille,” King said that day, speaking of his black Gibson guitar. “But today, I’m trying to say only God knows how I feel. I am so happy. Thank you.”