The man and his music: Museum celebrates B.B. King and the blues

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal




At one point early in his life, Riley King had a clear vision of his place in the world:
“I was going to have me a little farm. I could picture seeing myself plowing, picture seeing a beautiful woman with my two or three kids coming out and bringing me some water. Those were my dreams.”
Later in life, Riley King was known as “Beale Street Blues Boy” King, which was eventually shortened to B.B. King.
His erroneous predication appears on the wall of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, a place dedicated to the course King’s life actually took.
“He didn’t understand why people would want to come to a museum about him,” said Jack McWilliams, facility and technical manager at the 4-year-old museum.
King and his guitar, Lucille, are recognized around the world, and the bluesman behind “The Thrill is Gone,” “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss” and “When Love Comes to Town” has been a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1987.
Musical greats, including Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Grace Slick, George Harrison and Jeff Beck, have listed King as a primary influence on their careers.
“He met the pope and gave him a guitar,” McWilliams said, pointing to a photograph of the meeting. “I mean, here’s a black kid from the Mississippi Delta with the pope. That’s amazing.”
The museum follows King from his birth on a cotton plantation to the heights of worldwide fame.
It was a long road to travel, and King built his reputation one audience at a time. Two marriages crumbled under the strain of his constant touring.
He faced racism throughout the segregated South, where putting on a fabulous show didn’t guarantee a warm bed at night or even access to a gas station men’s room.
“We wanted to tell the larger story,” McWilliams said. “He had to push through everything to make it where he is today.”
Tears
King was born in Berclair in 1925 and lived in Kilmichael for a time, but Indianola was where he began to develop his musical skills, playing guitar at the corner of Second and Church streets on Saturdays.
“He lives in Las Vegas now,” McWilliams said, “but he calls Indianola his hometown.”
In two independent studies, architecture students from Mississippi State University and Auburn University searched the city for an appropriate place for the museum. Both picked the same spot, a brick cotton gin on Second Street that had been slated for demolition.
“We had to figure out how we were going to tell B.B. We weren’t sure how he was going to react,” McWilliams said. “When he pulled into the parking lot, he had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘You know I used to work in this building.’ We knew we had the right place.”
On Wednesday, King will face that cotton gin as he gives his 32nd Homecoming concert.
“Think about that,” McWilliams said. “It says if you have drive and perseverance, you can accomplish your goals.”
The gin holds weddings, anniversaries, corporate gatherings and other events. During the Homecoming, King probably will have his pre-concert meal there.
“He’ll sit around and talk to people,” McWilliams said. “His manager will get him and say, ‘You need to get on the bus and rest a little bit. You’ve got a show.’ B.B.’s cordial. He likes to talk to people when he’s here.”
Early life
Before visiting the rest of the museum, visitors sit in a theater to watch a short biography. Next, they step into a room that mixes rough-hewn wood and touchscreen interactive displays.
The wall features a photograph of a river baptism, as well as shots from the 1927 Mississippi River Food, which came two years after King’s birth.
Displays tell how King’s parents split. His mother died, then his grandmother died, and King found himself living alone for a couple of months as a young teenager.
“It took that long for his dad to learn what happened,” McWilliams said.
The young King milked cows and tended hogs, and worked in the fields. He also sang with the St. John Gospel Quartet, and, of course, played guitar.
The museum includes the wider story of bluesmen from the Delta, including Charley Patton and Willie Ford. On the low-tech end, there’s a well-used bench from Holly Ridge where Patton and others played. Nearby, corrugated tin borders a high-tech touchscreen that lets visitors study the history of gospel and the blues, the music that surrounded King in Mississippi.
Another exhibit explains why King felt an irresistible urge to go to Memphis. He didn’t shut down a tractor properly and it lurched forward, damaging the exhaust pipe. McWilliams said King paid for the damages, but not until he started making money in Memphis as a blues man.
“B.B. King said Memphis was kind of like community college for musicians,” McWilliams said. “He found people to talk to and learn from.”
One of his early gigs was as a pitchman for a tonic. He wrote the jingle, “Pep-Ti-Kon, Pep-Ti-Kon, sure is good. You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood.” A bottle of Pep-Ti-Kon, which had 12 percent alcohol, is on display at the museum.
“That is B.B.’s bottle,” McWilliams said. “He would play music on a truck while the salesman sold the products.”
On the road
The “Beale Street Blues Boy” got his nickname in Memphis after he was told that Riley King wasn’t a good radio name.
But King really made his name on the road, spending as many as 320 days traveling from town to town on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a loose affiliation of juke joints where African-Americans played during segregation.
“If you were in an all-black band in the 1950s, you couldn’t stay in a white hotel,” McWilliams said. “If you didn’t find a place to stay, you ate crackers and vienna sausages on the bus.”
One of King’s buses had a 130-gallon gas tank. When the band stopped for a refill, one gallon was put into the tank, then band members asked to use the restroom. If they couldn’t use the restroom, the pump was put away and the bus went to the next station.
“Eventually, they found one that would let them go to the bathroom,” McWilliams said. “They said, ‘Let’s give them the business.’”
What’s in a name?
On the Chitlin’ Circuit in Twist, Ark., a fight broke out, causing a barrel of kerosene to tip over. The juke joint burned down, but not before King ran back inside to retrieve his guitar.
According to an exhibit, “He later recalled, ‘I almost lost my life to save my guitar.’ To remind himself never to do anything so risky again, he named the instrument after the woman whose charms had set off the fight. Her name was Lucille.”
The 86-year-old musician has used several “Lucilles” over the years, and some are on display at the museum, along with Grammy Awards for “The Thrill is Gone,” “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere,” “Riding with the King,” and more.
Interactive displays allow visitors to trace King’s influence on blues and rock ‘n’ roll artists. In another area, people can pick up guitars and jam with the King. Yet another display features a video of King as he describes the tears he cried after receiving a standing ovation following his first performance in front of a mostly white crowd at the Fillmore West in San Francisco.
The point of the museum is to give a sense of the man and his music, and their place in the larger world.
There’s also an overlying message that goes beyond dates and facts. It even goes beyond the music, McWilliams said.
“That’s where he found his passion, but it doesn’t have to be music,” he said. “If you have an idea and a passion for it, you push forward with it. That’s what B.B.’s story says. This kid from the Delta, look what he’s done.”
scott.morris@journalinc.com