RIP, B.B. King: “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”

B.B. King at his final homecoming concert in Indianola, Mississippi, in 2015

B.B. King at his final homecoming concert in Indianola, Mississippi, in 2015

“Did you ever hear a church bell tone?
Then you know old B is dead and gone…”

B.B. King has stopped touring.

I haven’t looked, but I’m sure there are folks today posting variations of the obvious “The King is dead” or, of course, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

But it’s just not true. As I’m typing, I’m listening to B.B. King. And I will for decades to come. As prolific as he was, I’ll even probably still keep discovering new music, new performances.

B.B. King, the King of the Blues, lives on.

A good man died last night.

I don’t recall ever hearing anyone call him Riley in person. To people talking to the performer, he was B.B. or Mr. King or Dr. King. He bristled at the latter one; while he was touched by his honorary doctorates, “Dr. King” was the Reverend Martin Luther King, and B.B. felt unworthy to be called by that name.

To friends, when he wasn’t B.B., he was, more casually B. And that’s who the world lost last night.

I didn’t know him — he certainly wouldn’t have known me — but we had mutual friends, and I had the privilege that I had more direct experience with B than with B.B. King.

I went, once, to see him in a true and proper concert, here in Huntsville at the Von Braun Center five years ago. It was a bucket list item, and I’m glad I had the opportunity.

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But most of my experiences were when B came home. He was born in Berclair, Mississippi and died at his house in Las Vegas, but Indianola, Mississippi is where B.B. King considered to be home.

Home being a relative concept. B.B. spent far and away most of his time on the road; I honestly thought he would die there. He nearly did, and probably would have if he could have. He bought some property in Indianola many years ago and long talked about building a house there, but never did. I’d hoped the building of the B.B. King Museum might make it more appealing, it was pleasant to imagine him sitting in a big chair at the museum talking to visiting children. I think he could have been happy, but it’s not who he was.

But for a couple of days each year, who he was was the man who grew up in Indianola, picking cotton and playing gospel on a street corner and hanging out with his friends. His visits home involved long visits with good friends and often food that the well-known diabetic really didn’t need to be eating but that it wouldn’t be home without.

Over the years I lived and worked in Indianola, my job with The Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper gave me glimpses of this side of B.B. – one of the friendliest, most good-natured men you’ll ever meet, loyal to his friends and humble and accessible to strangers. It wasn’t hard to imagine, if he ever could build that house, passing him in the vegetable aisle of the Sunflower Food Store like anybody else in town. He was so real, so genuine, so friendly. He enjoyed being B.B. King, but he never let it go to his head.

T-shirt I designed for the 1997 homecoming festival, signed by the man himself.

T-shirt I designed for the 1997 homecoming festival, signed by the man himself.

And then at the heart of it all there was the annual homecoming concert. Every other night, he performed for other people. On that one night, he performed for himself. He indulged himself, he had fun, he did what he wanted. He didn’t make a dime that night, and anything that was charged for tickets went to local parks and later to the museum. He didn’t make anything, so he was beholden to no one. He played a few songs, he let his band riff, he held a dance contest for kids. People who came to see the King of the Blues sometimes left disappointed, but that’s not what it was about. It was about B.B. coming home.

I saw him there many times over the years. When I moved to Alabama, it became harder to make it back, but on rare occasions I did. Last year, they announced that it would be the final time B.B. would play the homecoming festival. It seemed an odd decision, since he was still touring. The concerts recently maybe hadn’t been as good as they’d once been, but he was still performing and people still wanted to see him. Why decide then that it would be his last? I read something just this week about the festival being held at the end of this month, for the first time without B.B. And then, this morning, that he was gone. Whoever made the decision last year, it appears they were right. Or maybe a road that didn’t go through Indianola was a road nearing its end. Either way, B.B. King died 10 days before the Indianola Homecoming Festival was to be held for the first time without him.

I’m so very glad I went last year. I’m glad I got to see him again. I’m glad Rebecca got to see him in person. I’m glad I got to stand by my former editor and my friend Jim Abbott for the historic moment that B.B. King left the stage in his hometown for the last time. And I’m glad I saw that performance. He was old — so very old — but he gave all he had, and that night, he was all he’d ever been. It was worthy of the King of the Blues. No dance contest, just B.B. King doing well what he made his name doing. It was an amazing concert, far better than the one I saw in Huntsville.

There are other stories I could tell, like getting to give him t-shirts on a couple of occasions, or Lucille getting lost in the Mississippi Delta, but I’ll tell instead my favorite story of B.B. King, the story that, more than any other, captured why — beyond being a good man and a great musician — B.B. King matters.

I said the homecoming performances were for him. He had fun. I mentioned the dance contests. They were ostensibly for the kids, but I think they were, even more, for B.B.

There was a section at each homecoming in front of the stage reserved for children. B.B. would play songs for a while, but at some point, he’d start the dance contest. He’d call kids up on stage, the band would play, the kids would dance. B.B. would walk across the stage, hold his hand over each kid, the audience would clap. The kid that got the most applause was the winner. Depending on the year, B.B. would hand out cash.

This could go on for a while. The audience would get bored, some people would leave, but the kids, and, most importantly, B.B. were having fun.

It was important to B.B. to get a diverse group of kids on stage – boys and girls, different races. If it was getting too heavy loaded one way or another, he’d ask for what was needed to balance it out. This was important.

And, let me point out, is not the way things always were in Indianola, Mississippi. In days past, Indianola was the birthplace of the White Citizens Councils, the white-collar, as it were, version of the Klan. It was important to B.B. that today’s Indianola look different than the one he grew up in.

So one night I’m at the homecoming festival, and after the dance contest had stretched on for a while, I decide to walk back home. Indianola’s a small city; home is just over a mile away, and you can hear the festival clearly the whole walk.

I’m walking home, through Indianola, Mississippi, the birthplace of the White Citizens Councils, and I hear a seventy-something-year-old black man call out across town, “I need another little white girl.”

There was a day when that would not have been OK.

B.B. was not a crusader or an activist. He was a man who believed things should be better, and made it inevitable. B.B. King was a force for integration because he made people want to open doors for him. He mattered. He matters.

The world is the less without him in it, but it’s better for him having been here, and always will be.

“It’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you
Please see that my grave is kept clean.”


Song Challenge Week 6 — A Song That Reminds You Of Somewhere

To make the Post A Day 2011 challenge a bit more bearable, I’ve set up a couple of regular features. Keeping the music theme I’ve been using, I’m undertaking the 30 Day Song Challenge as a weekly project.

Week 6 — A Song That Reminds You Of Somewhere

“The Thrill Is Gone,” B.B. King

As those who know me at all know, I worked for years at the newspaper in Indianola, Miss.

As those who know me at all know, Indianola is where B.B. King claims as his hometown.

Every year, B.B. King would come back to Indianola and give a fund-raiser concert. He and his band got nothing for it, the proceeds would benefit local parks.

As a result, it was the most self-indulgent concert you’ve ever seen. Since B.B. was doing it as a favor, he cared less about entertaining the audience than he did about entertaining himself.

He usually played a pretty short show, sometimes only five or so songs. The focus was a dance contest, in which he would pull kids from the audience up on stage. This made B.B. happy, but it was not unusual for audiences to leave en masse during this part.

I will say, though, that I liked it for one rather interesting reason. B.B. always wanted a diverse group of kids on stage, so he’d ask for what he needed to round it out — “I need another black boy.” One year I left during this part and walked home, you could hear him easily a mile away in the middle of the small-town Indianola night calling out what he needed.

I should point out at this point that Indianola, in addition to being the hometown of B.B. King, was also the birthplace of the White Citizens Counsel, sort of a white-collar (so to speak) version of the Ku Klux Klan. So it gave me great delight that the town had come far enough that an elderly black man could yell out clear across town, “Bring me another little white girl,” and people would pay to see it. There’s hope for us all yet.

But, I digress …

Like I said, most of the concert was pretty self-indulgent. It had its entertaining moments, but it was more about the event than the music.

Except …

When B.B. started playing “The Thrill Is Gone,” it got real. Real fast.

What I remember, what this song takes me back to — and not the studio version, only live versions — is not the way the song sounded. It’s how the song felt.

I remember standing in the park, hearing B.B. King pluck Lucille in the way only B.B. King does, and feeling the notes pass over and through me, resonating in my heart and bones, not an aural sensation but a physical one. And a powerful one at that.

I’ve had similar moments at other concerts, but having seen B.B. King at his homecoming concert probably seven times, none of those has the reinforcement of this one.

When I hear The Thrill Is Gone, I think of Fletcher Park, Main Street, Indianola, Mississippi.

Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!

Happy Mardi Gras!

One Night With The King

The concert last night was great, and I had a great time. I had a great dinner with a good friend before braving the icy cold, which I was very glad didn’t cancel the concert. B.B. has gotten old since the first time I saw him 13 years ago; it was very apparent as he made his way onto stage. And, at times, it seemed like perhaps he was a little less crisp than the last time I saw him.

That said — wow. The power behind his voice at 84 years old is just amazing, and he and Lucille still create sounds that no one else on Earth can. Simply phenomenal. I was very very glad that I went to go see him do a real concert. Another item off the bucket list.

Also, another item of the to-do list for the week. I still need to get organized for my trip before I leave Sunday, and I have friends from Mississippi coming into town tonight. It’ll all get done. Really.

As a bonus, this is my 365project pic for today; an Apollo-inspired snow picture:

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.