Paying The Cost To See The King

The first time I saw B.B. King was 13 years ago.

This story would have started there even without this prologue, but I’m going to tell it anyway. The pre-beginning of the story goes back to when I was in college, doing graphics for the Ole Miss student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian. They were having some big jazz event on campus, and we needed a visual element to go with the feature. Not having a good picture, I decided to whip up a graphic myself. I needed some image to work from, and, even though jazz is not the blues, I saw that we had a good picture of this B.B. King guy with a guitar, and I used that as the basis of my artwork. (Which turned out rather nicely, I must say.)

Cut to a few years later, when I’m working in Indianola, Miss., at The Enterprise-Tocsin.

Now, Riley King technically was born near Berclair, in Leflore County, but he considers Indianola his hometown, and every year he comes home and does a charity concert for the people there. In advance of the concert, I found out they were doing a contest to design t-shirts for the festival. And, of course, award-winning graphic artist that I was, I decided I had to enter. So I dug up the artwork that I had done back in college, reworked it a good bit, and submitted it. In the process of working on it, I decided that it might not hurt to, you know, have actually heard some of his music. So I bought a few cheap tapes from the K-Mart down in Jackson, and listened to B.B. King for the first time. As a result, I had heard his music before I saw him the first time.

My editor, Jim Abbott, had become friends with B.B. over the years, so I would have gotten to meet him regardless. But because my t-shirt won, I got to have my picture made with him and my shirt, and got him to sign it. That’s what the picture at the top of this post is.

I love B.B. King as an artist. But, to be honest, I like him even more as a person. That day was the first of several times over the years I got to attend his welcome/press conference event when he got into town in Indianola, during which I saw him not on stage but among friends. And he’s a genuinely nice guy. Amazingly humble. Affable. Friendly. Insightful. While I was working in Indianola, he bought land there, and talked about building a house to retire to. And I could actually picture running into him at Sunflower buying groceries. “Hey, B.B., how you doing?” He’s just that nice and down-to-Earth. Now, that said, it won’t happen. B.B. will die on the road, playing the blues until he just can’t anymore. It’s what he does. It’s who he is.

I would also submit a t-shirt design one more time while I was in Indianola, five years later, earning a second signed shirt. My artwork was also used on billboards around the Delta, which seemed more than a little cool at the time. Pretty sure it’s the only time my design work has been used on a billboard.

B.B. King Billboard

So at some point in this story, I guess there should be some mention of music, huh?

I’ve lost count of how many times I went to the annual homecoming festival. Not only did I go every year I was in Indianola, I’ve lived up to the homecoming name by making the pilgrimage back for it more than once.

At moments, it’s sublime. “The Thrill Is Gone” is amazing live. Amazing. And hearing B.B. lead his band as fireworks go off in the dark Delta sky is a pretty awesome experience. Arguably, if you want to really listen to the blues, you need to do it in the Mississippi Delta at least once. (Beale Street technically counts, since it is south of the Peabody.)

But — like I said, B.B. does this as a charity event. He and the band get nothing for it. He likes coming home, and he enjoys playing for his hometown folk while he’s there. The five or ten bucks for the tickets go to local parks.

As a result, he does the show he wants to do. He’s not worried about people getting their money’s worth out of it, he’s there to have fun. It’s always been worth the price of admission, to be sure. He plays a handful of songs, and they’re great. But a good chunk of the concert is B.B.’s dance contest. He calls kids up on stage with him, has them dance while the band plays, has the audience clap for who they think is the best dancer, he gives that kid some money, and brings up the next group.

More than once, I left the concert during this part, hearing B.B.’s voice booming for the next kids to be brought on stage while walking across town back to my house, making sure to get a good mix of boys and girls, black and white.

I will say that it was a nice testament to how far Indianola had come. Decades before, Indianola had been the birthplace of the White Citizen’s Council, the South’s premier upscale racist organization — the Kountry Klub Klan, if you will. And it occurred to me one night walking home that, you know, if an octagenarian black man could demand into a microphone in the middle of the night in Indianola, Miss., that someone bring him another little white girl, there’s hope for society yet.

And so, while I’ve seen B.B. King play many times, I’ve still always wanted to see him play an actual concert. And I’ve never had the opportunity. Or, perhaps, never made the opportunity.

But, tonight, I will.

2 Responses

  1. GREAT post!

  2. Keetha — I just saw that my blog software stuck this in the spam filter. Sorry! Thanks! Glad you liked the post!

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