Friday, June 5, 2015

It All Comes Back To The King

Last weekend, B.B. King, the King of the Blues, was laid to rest in Indianola at the museum which bears his name.  Mississippi's public TV station broadcast the funeral live on Saturday morning, and video of the service can be seen at MPB's YouTube site.  A wonderful service, one of the highlights was a magnificent medley of gospel songs from Otis Clay and the Soul Stirrers' Willie Rogers.  

I was not able to attend the funeral or any of the other events that accompanied it......I lost a close friend earlier in the week and attended his funeral on Saturday......but our humble correspondent Joe, who is one of the biggest B.B. King fans on record, was able to take part and he filed this report on the events and offers his reflections on the passing of a legend.  Check it out below and when you're done, be sure check out Joe's previous posts here and here.  

As always, Graham presented a fantastic and thorough tribute to BB King in his May 22 post.  The videos attached to it are some of BB’s best performances and represent many phases in his career.  The tributes to BB King have been pouring in from all over the world by people much more important and articulate than me. I read a lengthy article yesterday diagramming BB’s technical ability on guitar and it blew me away.  The author was able to describe in great detail why BB just sounded so different from everybody else…   

All blues fans have their own personal connection to BB and his music. For me, my connection to BB King and love for his music is very personal.  Every true blues fan has a particular artist/album that caused you to suddenly “get it” and become not just a casual fan of the blues…But, to become passionate about learning all you can of the history, influences, genres, and true icons of blues music.  You want to learn who influenced your favorite blues artists and their contemporaries.... You’re trying to listen to every performer connected to particular genres of the blues…One blues performer leads to another and before you know it, you’re making special trips to find blues trail markers and searching for a particular headstone in isolated cemeteries in the MS delta. You are drawn to sit in a field on a ridiculously hot summer day in Bentonia to hear Jimmy “Duck” Holmes play guitar and you’re making hotel reservations a year in advance for the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale.  Late night pilgrimages to Ground Zero Blues Club, Red’s, Po’ Monkey’s, F. Jones Corner, The Blue Biscuit, Club Ebony and Blue Front Café are mandatory. You appreciate these places because you know they are disappearing and you’re genuinely bothered that you didn’t get to go to a legendary juke joint like Junior’s Place before it burned down…. All of this usually starts with one blues performer and a particular song or album.  For me, it happened to be BB King.

A friend gave me a cassette of BB King’s Blues Summit in 1997 and I was hooked.  It coincided with a job that at that time required frequent and long trips to the MS Delta.  I had the perfect opportunity and view to begin my blues education, especially when it came to BB King.  BB led to Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Son Seals, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor, JB Hutto, Magic Slim….Blues fans know the drill.  Hill Country blues, folk blues, blues rock… All the different genres of blues.  But, I would always come back to BB.  It started with him and there was nothing that ultimately compared to his voice and the way he played Lucille. 

I saw BB in concert 13 times.  In Vicksburg, Memphis, twice in Jackson, and many times at the Club Ebony in Indianola.  I was able to meet him and he posed for a photo with my son when we attended the 2008 Medgar Evers Homecoming.  I was in the audience at his club in Memphis when BB King Live wasfilmed and recorded in 2006 and I was at the Club Ebony for his duet with Kenny Wayne Shepherd on "The Thrill Is Gone" in 2004. Every BB concert was special to me.  Some were frankly better than others (His 2008 show in Vicksburg was full of older songs that had long been retired from his standard set list.  He was focused and his guitar playing was spot on for his 2006 Memphis club show and his 2008 Club Ebony show to open the museum was also very special.)  Even the shows when he seemed tired or more interested in interacting with the audience had moments of pure guitar genius.  Either way, you were in the same room with BB King and that was something to appreciate and celebrate. 

Like many other blues fans, I was angry when I heard about the treatment BB received during his April 2014 show in St. Louis.  As Graham said at the time, it’s a matter of respect…. I know it was a small part of the crowd, but you just don’t boo BB King.  I watched a video of the performance and became just as upset that he was still out on the road performing night after night on lengthy tours.  It was very difficult to see BB struggling as he was that night.  Musicians nearly 20 years his junior (Clapton, McCartney, Van Morrison) have greatly reduced their concert schedules, why couldn’t BB King?  If BB was going to continue to perform, why couldn’t he just play at the occasional weekend festival or set up for multi-gig residencies at theaters, such as Tom Petty or the Allman Brothers?  Legitimate concerns were being raised whether BB’s performance schedule was in his and his fans’ best interest.  BB later issued an apology for his performance in St. Louis, citing health reasons and some rust from being off the road. 5 days after St. Louis, he was back on tour performing 8 concerts in 10 days. His ticket prices remained fairly high and he continued to receive mixed concert reviews.    

I skipped his Indianola Homecoming show in 2014.  I found many sorry excuses not to go…There wouldn’t be a late night Club Ebony show, just the performance in the field beside the museum…No reserved seating meant getting on the road early that morning…It was hot…I had a lot to do that day and he’ll be back through Jackson or Memphis for a “real” concert soon…It won’t really be his last Homecoming show as had been announced…Again, all lame excuses.  Truth is, I was worried about his potential performance.  I just didn’t want to see BB possibly struggle as he did in St. Louis…  He continued to play shows in the summer and early fall of 2014, but things went terribly wrong on Oct. 5 in Chicago.  The show was ended early and his remaining 8 dates were cancelled. Somehow, you just knew that we wouldn’t see BB perform again and even future public appearances were in doubt.   I immediately regretted my decision to not go to his last Homecoming show.  I should have been there.  Then came the hospital trips, the announcement he was in hospice care and the statement he had passed away.  There was no way I was going to miss BB’s final Homecoming to Indianola and when the May 29 viewing was announced, I made plans to go.  

I have 2 sons and they were raised on blues music, especially BB King.  We made numerous trips to Memphis when they were younger for Redbirds and Grizzlies games.  We would stay downtown, go to the Peabody Place mall, listen to Big Jerry play the blues in front of the New Daisy Theater on Beale and we ALWAYS ate dinner at BB King’s Club.  We listened to BB on the way to Memphis and on the ride home.  In fact, most rides anywhere in my car involved listening to BB King… They are now in law school and college and have developed their own appreciation for the blues. They have branched out from BB’s music, just like I did.  For my oldest, it is currently Gary Clark Jr, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Derek and the Dominos-era Clapton, and the Allman Brothers.  For years, my youngest son was all about folk blues: Son House, Skip James, MS John Hurt and Robert Johnson.  That led to Hill Country music by RL and T Model Ford. He’s now into the Chess era Southside electric sound of Otis Rush, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.   Next week, they may be listening to and reading about another performer, or era, or genre of the blues.  That is the great thing about beginning a blues education, it never ends.        

I sent my sons a text of BB’s final arrangement plans.  My job and their class schedules wouldn’t allow us to go to Memphis on May 27, but we all immediately agreed that we would be in Indianola on Friday, May 29.  There really wasn’t any discussion whether we would go.  We were going.  I quickly made hotel reservations for May 29 and we coordinated our trip to Indianola.

Like everybody else, I watched the reports of the memorial in Memphis.  The sight of Rodd Bland carrying one of BB’s treasured Gibson guitars down Beale Street in front of his hearse was incredible.  People lined Hwy 61 as the hearse made its way to Leland and then east on Hwy 82 to Indianola, finally arriving on Wednesday. 

We got to Indianola late in the afternoon on Friday.  The line of cars parked on 2nd street began shortly after we turned off Hwy 49.  The long lines (an estimated 4,000 people passed by his casket and the lines began at 6:00 am) had dwindled by the time we arrived, but there were still many visitors at the museum.  The streets were closed several blocks surrounding the museum and law enforcement directed people to muddy parking lots around the area. It was very hot and muggy.  A storm had passed through shortly before our arrival and the sun had now come out.  This was the steamy MS delta where BB lived alone as a child, raising his own cotton crop after his mother and grandmother died.  His Homecoming shows were always in the summer and I can remember many times sitting in a warm, packed Club Ebony waiting on his arrival.  It was fitting that it would be a hot and muggy day for BB’s memorial.  People were lined up to pose for pictures by Lucille’s statue and by the sign for the museum.  The mood was frankly a little odd…. Many people had somber expressions and were well dressed.  For others, their mood was also serious, but they were dressed in shorts and t-shirts.   Some people were acting rather festive and t-shirts honoring the weekend were being sold by vendors on many of the streets.   BB’s music was everywhere.  It was playing in many of the cars lined up to turn off of 2nd street to park and also outside the museum.  Appropriately, the Gibson Guitar Bus was there and parked across the street from the museum at the Blue Biscuit.  

There were two lines as you approached the museum.  An officer would periodically shout, “Museum to the left, viewing to the right…” At that time, most of the crowd had already passed through the viewing line and were now waiting their turn for the museum.  There was a long line just to buy tickets for the museum and even longer wait for people to then enter the theater room for the start of the tour.  They didn’t seem to mind, many had travelled long distances to be there and they may not have another opportunity to visit the museum. There was even a long line just to get in the gift shop. 

We got in the viewing line to the right and made our way into the museum’s entrance.  I learned later that Buddy Guy had been through earlier in the afternoon… I recognized several well-dressed MS legislators immediately in front of us as the line turned to the right, proceeding through the museum’s lobby into the restored 1920s cotton gin connected to the museum’s lobby.  We hadn’t said much as we got in the line for the viewing, but when we started up the steps to the cotton gin room, I mentioned that BB worked in this gin when he was a young man.  The significance of the moment really began to hit me.  I couldn’t help but tell my sons that they would one day tell their grandchildren about this….

The line continued through the room and you could see the flowers and Gibson guitars on each side of the bronze coffin.  Law enforcement was all along the line, keeping a close eye on everyone as we approached the casket.  The Mississippi Highway Patrol color guard officers on each side of the casket were VERY impressive, providing almost a head of state feel to the scene.  The mood was very somber as we approached and then stood in front of the casket.  BB was dressed in a purple shirt and colorful tuxedo jacket and was wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to him in 2006 by Pres. Bush.  We slowly made our way past the coffin and out the doors of the cotton gin.  

We didn’t say much as we walked through the muggy delta heat to downtown Indianola.  We went to BB’s blues trail marker downtown and took pictures by his hand imprints in the cement on the street corner where he performed as a 17 year old tractor driver.  We walked to the Club Ebony and took pictures at the blues trail marker, talking to several locals along the way.  We then drove to Holly Ridge to visit Charley Patton and Willie Foster’s graves.  BB was our soundtrack as we made our way through the hot delta.  You can’t help but picture him as you ride through these fields… Playing guitar on the weekends and sharecropping during the day.  A young man, married to Miss Martha, just trying to survive.  Knowing he had a desire and possibly even the ability to stake a bigger claim…

That evening we had dinner at the Blue Biscuit.  If you haven’t been, I encourage you to go.  The Biscuit has a real deal delta juke joint atmosphere.  Great music and they slow cook their pulled pork for 72 hours!  We had BBQ, catfish and enjoyed talking with owners Trish Berry and her husband Stan.  I met them many years earlier at my first Homecoming.  Their parties before BB’s show at the park and Club Ebony were pretty legendary and it was always a part of my Homecoming experience.    

We ended the night by going to the Club Ebony.  It is now owned by the museum and apparently only open for special occasions.  The band had unfortunately just finished when we arrived, but my sons got to see the inside of a legendary blues club.  The thought of Ray Charles, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert King and BB having played in such a small venue is incredible.  I told them stories of many past BB shows there…When their uncles flew in from Fort Myers, FL, Jacksonville, FL and Indianapolis IN, to the 2006 Homecoming and the wild time we had that night… Their mom buying rib tips outside The Ebony at 2:00 am and bringing them back in the club during BB’s show in 2009….That first time I experienced the Homecoming weekend, especially BB’s late night Club Ebony show.  My brother Gary was with me and it was the most enlightening and authentic experience I had ever had.

The next morning, I was able to meet Ruby Wilson, the Queen of Beale Street, in the hotel breakfast area.  Ms. Ruby, several more of BB’s friends, and even some of his nieces and cousins began telling stories about BB and his life-long friend Norman Matthews. I enjoyed every minute of it…. We arrived home just in time to watch the funeral service on MPB.  Kudos to Ronnie Agnew, Executive Director of MPB, and his staff for their hard work preparing for and broadcasting the service.  The world was able to see a beautiful delta tribute to BB King.                      

The previous day, after leaving Holly Ridge, we continued down Hwy 82 to Leland.  We found Johnny Winter‘s blues trail marker and I was able to tell my sons about him and his roots in Leland.  In due time, their blues education will lead them to Winter’s 1968 Progressive Blues Experiment… That’s how it works.  You have to follow your own blues path, discovering new/old artists and their recordings along the way.  My blues education began with BB King.  It sounds a little cliché when we hear people say that BB will live forever through his music, but it really is true.  Many years from now someone will hear Live At The Regal, Indianola Mississippi Seeds or, maybe the recording that started me on my way, BluesSummit, and begin their blues journey…And like me, they will always go back to who started it for them, BB King.

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