The last time King of Blues sang at home
“I wish I could play the guitar like B.B. King.”
— John Lennon
B.B. King, who passed away in his sleep in his Las Vegas home Thursday night at the age of 89, had been frail for years. Yet he kept performing until last fall, always willing to meet his fans and pose for pictures and sign autographs.
King made his last appearance in Mississippi last Memorial Day on the grounds of his museum in Indianola, not far from where he was born in the farming community of Berclair on Sept. 16, 1925.
The free concert was announced as his last homecoming. His diabetes had taken a toll on the legendary performer — for once, the adjective is deserved — and when he was helped onstage he looked disoriented for a moment. But then he sat down and played his Gibson guitar — he called it Lucille — as if he were 40 years younger. He was glad to be back home.
He’d been performing in Mississippi for free every spring for about 45 years. It gave him a chance to return to his roots and visit family. On this night, he was onstage for more than an hour and seemed to get stronger the more he played and sang. He’d been on the road for 65 years, longer than any performer alive today, even longer than Tony Bennett, who is a year younger than King but who could surpass B.B. for longevity in a couple of years.
The Memorial Day audience was raucous, and King asked them to quiet down a bit. “I want you to have a good time, but I don’t want you to be so loud that I can’t hear myself,” said the 88-year-old bluesman.
The program included “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Rock Me, Baby,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” and more. This playlist might be the songs he wants played at his funeral.
Riley B. King started performing as a teenager on a street corner across from the county courthouse in Indianola, a couple of blocks from his museum where we were listening to him.
He heard the “King Biscuit Time” blues show on radio station KFFA from Helena during lunch breaks at the plantation.
His influences included deep-blues musicians such as Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, but also rhythm-and-blues artists like Louis Jordan of Brinkley and the Texas wailer T-Bone Walker. B.B. borrowed music from other musicians and turned their songs into hits — first Lowell Fulson’s “Three O’Clock in the Morning” and “Every Day I Have the Blues” (which became B.B.’s opener at his concerts) and Roy Hawkins’ “The Thrill Is Gone,” which became King’s crossover hit in 1969 and made him a star for the next 45 years.
Sonny Boy, who appeared on “King Biscuit Time,” later let King substitute for him in a West Memphis nightclub. B.B. also picked cotton in Arkansas, where the pay was better than in Mississippi.
King left the plantation and moved to Memphis after serving in the Army during the Second World War. He became a disc jockey and the most famous blues singer in the world: Beale Street Blues Boy King, or B.B. King for short.
King, who won 15 Grammys, made many fine live recordings besides “Live at the Regal” in Chicago from 1965. Also listen to “Blues Is King” and “Live in Cook County Jail,” which were also recorded in Chicago in 1967 and 1971 respectively. “Live in Japan,” which is as good as “Live at the Regal,” was recorded in 1971 but not released in this country until 1999.
His early singles, “The RPM Hits 1951-1957,” are also essential. “B.B. King Sings Spirituals,” also from the 1950s, is worth checking out. What an amazing legacy.
He lived for a time in Parkin (Cross County) and made a memorable appearance at a nightclub in nearby Twist. (Howlin’ Wolf farmed near a bend in the St. Francis River and also lived in Parkin for a time.)
A marker honors King in an empty lot in Twist, where back in the 1950s,
a couple of fellows were fighting over a woman and knocked over a barrel filled with kerosene used to heat the club.
Everybody fled, but King realized he’d left his guitar inside the burning club.
Risking his life, he retrieved the guitar. He found out the woman the men had fought over was named Lucille, so he named all his Gibson guitars after her.
We heard B.B. perform about 10 times — several times in Indianola, twice in Little Rock, once in Helena, as well as at Ole Miss, where he received an honorary doctorate from Morgan Freeman in 2006.
After the program, B.B. autographed my old “Live at the Regal” LP that I’d brought with me. He was sitting at a table at the Ford Theater where he’d just performed and said, “Many critics say this is my best record.”
I said, “It’s the best live recording ever made,” before I realized how many others he’d made.
I asked him to sign an autograph for my son Jonathan.
“My band leader’s son is also named Jonathan,” King said. “He’s in Iraq.”
James (Boogaloo) Bolden, the band leader and trumpet player, was standing nearby. He nodded with pride, and so did I.