INDIANOLA, Miss. (AP) — Blues legend B.B. King grew up as poor as could be, alone and in debt at 14, living in primitive cabins and sharecropping cotton in Mississippi.
His natural talent with a guitar enabled him to escape grueling poverty and manual labor. He became a millionaire, and played for presidents, the pope and the Queen of England. But glittering wealth and international fame never kept him from his roots in the Delta, and friends say he showed no bitterness about his rough start.
King died at 89 Thursday at his home in Las Vegas, but his impact is still deeply felt in small towns along the Mississippi Blues Trail, where he came of age before the industrialization of agriculture and other factors prompted the descendants of slaves to migrate in huge numbers out of the Deep South.
“I think he never considered himself as having left,” author Charles Sawyer, who wrote “The Arrival of B.B. King” in 1980, explained Friday. “And he was very conscious about how he presented himself to the world, and he didn’t want to present himself as an angry man.”
The future King of the Blues was born as Riley B. King in 1925 to sharecropper parents in a long-gone cabin along a creek in Belclair, 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.
King’s pay – $2.50 a month, or about $42 in today’s money – never matched the 8 percent interest that was typically added to sharecroppers’ debts every three months, Sawyer said. Luckily for the teenager, a federal agricultural subsidy canceled his first debt, freeing him to join a cousin in Indianola, the town where he first gained attention singing gospel on a street corner as a 17-year-old.
In 1980, King literally left his handprints in the cement on that corner – it’s one of many spots identified with historical markers as part of the Mississippi Blues Trail.
One spot not on the Blues Trail is the plantation near Indianola where King suddenly found himself in debt a second time, in his early 20s, prompting him to flee to Memphis, Tennessee, and give up gospel for the blues.
A tractor King had parked lurched forward, breaking off its exhaust stack. Fearing retribution, King fled the plantation, wrote a farewell note to his first wife, grabbed his guitar and hitched a ride on a produce truck for the big city, where he realized music could make him money. King then decided to return to Indianola, work off the cost of the tractor repair and leave for Memphis for good with a clean slate, Sawyer said.
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.”
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 B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center that opened in 2008 in Indianola, 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.
“He’s the only man I know, of his talent level, whose talent is exceeded by his humility,” said museum board member Allan Hammons last week.
King’s influence was evident as elementary school students spent their afternoons exercising, learning about nutrition and taking music and art classes. Teachers from nearby Delta State University showed one group how to play a rudimentary blues song on electric guitars, adding their own improvised lyrics. Education coordinator April Brock showed off portraits other children painted during Black History Month, of Rosa Parks, Michelle Obama and B.B. King.
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, Sawyer said. 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 all the people who put his concerts together, and because he simply loved connecting with audiences, Sawyer said.
And whenever he could, he came back to Mississippi, where he had many friends and admirers, said Dorothy Moore, a Mississippi singer who had a hit in 1976 with the blues classic “Misty Blue.” Moore grew up listening to B.B. King records at home, and later performed at concerts with him. “He has paved the way for me and other artists,” she said.
King also frequently performed at the annual Medgar Evers Homecoming, a Jackson-area celebration that honors the memory of the Mississippi NAACP leader assassinated 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.
“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.”