The B. B. King TreasuresPhotos, Mementos, & Music from B.B. King's Collection
BULFINCH PRESSCopyright © 2005 Kingsid Productions, Ltd.
All right reserved.ISBN: 0-821-25724-2
Chapter One LIFE OF RILEY: 80 YEARS IN THE BLUES
On February 15, 2005, B. B. King stood in the well of the Mississippi Senate at the State Capitol in Jackson. The legislature was meeting in joint session to honor their favorite son, the Beale Street Blues Boy.
The top brass of the political establishment from the governor on down were all there, seated across the raised dais behind the Senate well. B.B. was visibly nervous. He kept clenching and unclenching his hands as the Secretary began to read the joint resolution of the House and Senate, signed by Governor Barbour.
WHEREAS, the Blues' foremost artist, by anybody's standard, is Mississippi's Favorite Son, "B. B." King, and the guitar master has the licks and the hits to prove it; and ...
He was slightly unsteady on his feet. In his eightieth year the act of standing is an effort. His knees no longer support his weight without considerable discomfort. He could have remained seated, but he was determined to receive this tribute on his feet. The Secretary continued:
WHEREAS, he was born on a cotton plantation in Berclair outside Itta Bena, Mississippi, and is known for his humility, work ethic, perseverance and heart. Beatle John Lennon once said, "I wish I could play the guitar like B. B. King;" and ...
His feet stayed firmly planted but he swayed, slightly, as the proclamation rolled along, recounting his accomplishments, enumerating the honors others had bestowed on him. The gallery overlooking the Senate floor was packed. A video crew was recording the proceedings for the B. B. King Museum, which is to be built in Indianola, Mississippi. Perhaps it was the sense of how long the road had been from that sharecropper's cabin to this day and this tribute by state officials in the same state that, not so many decades ago, had been the very heart of Jim Crow South; perhaps it was the weight of all that muddy water under the bridge as much as his age and condition that made him sway and made his eyes fill with tears as the tribute continued.
When the proclamation was finished and the inevitable, seemingly endless, applause that followed had died down, B. B. King took a large handkerchief from his inside coat pocket, dried his tears, and thanked the assembled dignitaries and well-wishers.
"I've met kings and presidents, I've had a lot of honors," he said, "but none means quite so much to me as this, because I'm home now." He described his tears as tears of joy. "Thank you," he said simply, and stepped back.
BORN IN THE DELTA
The honors in Jackson are only the beginning of several that B.B. will receive as his eightieth birthday approaches. But we may take those proceedings as an end point in a long road that began on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta when he was born to two sharecroppers, Albert and Nora Ella King, at a spot beside Bear Creek in the town of Berclair, Mississippi, on September 16, 1925. As B.B.'s first biographer, I want to say here on this page, in this tribute, that the trajectory of B. B. King's life that runs through time, space and history from that sharecroppers' cabin in Berclair to the Capitol in Jackson and beyond has a breathtaking majesty. It's important to step back and contemplate the arc of that curve, because the way stations in his life between those two points are bench marks in the history of our culture and society. In many ways the story of Riley B. King, known to the world as the King of the Blues, B. B. King, is the story of America from the first quarter-mark of the twentieth century into the first decade of the twenty-first century.
In the 1920s, black sharecroppers like Riley's parents occupied the bottom rung of American society. All they had was their bodies and their labor, and sharecroppers had to mortgage these to make it to harvest time.
Farmers worked from "kin to cain't," that is, from the time in the morning when you can just distinguish a black mule from a brown one (the "kin" part), to the time in the evening when you can't tell the difference (the "cain't" part). In between, the sun beat down mercilessly.
Albert and Nora Ella named their son "Riley" after Albert's lost brother, the only kin he ever knew. Albert had been an orphan and was raised by a family named Love His marriage to Nora Ella lasted about five years and when they split up, Riley was their only surviving child Nora Ella left the Delta, taking her son with her, and went fifty miles to the east, into the hilly part of Mississippi where her mother and siblings were then living.
THE KILMICHAEL YEARS
For the next nine years of his life, Riley grew up in an extended family with aunts, uncles, and his grandmother, Elnora Farr. After a while his mother's health began to fail. She lost strength and started to lose her eyesight, symptoms that today would lead us to suspect diabetes She became weak, and the home remedies she took did nothing to restore her health. When Riley was nine years old Nora Ella called him to her bedside and told him she would soon die. In her parting words, she reminded him that he was a good boy, that he should try to do good, and he should be kind to others, because the kindness would always come back to him. These moral lessons would stay with him all his life. In fact people who know him well have said that he has lived his life so as to be a son she would be proud of. He still says that not a day goes by in which he doesn't think of her.
After his mother died, Riley lived in a cabin with his grandmother, Elnora, on the farm of Edwayne Henderson in Kilmichael, a tiny farming hamlet. During the next few years, life for Riley revolved around three things: work, school, and church. Each exerted a powerful influence on his developing character.
Riley would walk some miles to a school sponsored and maintained by the Elkhorn Primitive Baptist Church. As many as sixty-five or seventy youngsters, grades one to eight, would gather in the one-room schoolhouse heated by a wood stove, for lessons given by a gifted teacher, Luther Henson. Mr. Henson imparted intangible but important lessons that eventually became the pillars of Riley's adult life: self-respect, self-improvement, pragmatic planning, fair play, and hard work.
Church meant the Church of God In Christ, Reverend Archie Fair pastor. This denomination is known as "Pentecostal" or "Sanctified." The Sanctified Church is known for its spirited worship, which includes music, singing, shouting, dancing, and speaking in tongues; worshipers may enter a trance or even faint during services. Reverend Archie was part of Riley's extended family. Archie's wife and the wife of Riley's uncle, William Pullian, were sisters.
Archie Fair played a guitar at church and after Sunday services he would visit his sister-in-law at Riley's uncle's, guitar in hand. He would set it down on a bed during his visit. It was there, on a bed, in a sharecropper's cabin on the Henderson farm, that Riley met his first guitar-and fell in love.
Fair showed young Riley the three basic chords of gospel, which were also the foundation of the blues. Every Sunday at the Pullian cabin Riley got to play Archie's guitar and when he got those chords down well enough to play with singers, Archie let him play in church.
Much has been written about the connection between gospel and blues, about how they are just different sides of the same coin. It's obvious that the two forms are structurally similar, and also that both played a similar role in sustaining life in African American communities during those times. What is not often mentioned is the parallel in the dynamics of performance between preacher and congregation on the one hand, and blues performer and juke-joint audience on the other.
In the Sanctified Church the preacher led the community of the faithful in cycles of rising and falling tension, each cycle achieving a little greater high than the last. The preacher and his flock went far beyond simple call and response. It was shout and holler, yell and be saved, stand and deliver, be a witness for the Lord.
This progression toward religious ecstasy in which Riley was often deeply involved was improvisational but not random. It was carried along on a stream of music that included exuberant repetition of vocal themes as well as rhythmic clapping, stomping, strumming, thumping, and tapping. It led, inexorably, to one end: catharsis.
Thus Riley learned much more than just how to play a guitar and sing in the Sanctified Church. He learned to help people gathered in congregation to throw off their earthly cares like wretched rags as they reached toward sweet deliverance from whatever it was that ailed their souls. This purging of trouble-in-mind is the deep purpose of B.B.'s blues performances even today, and on his best nights the deliverance is mutual. It is at the heart of his performance craft-among the best in show business-and he learned it from Archie Fair when he was still a poor country boy.
Gospel wasn't the only music Riley heard and learned to play. His aunt Mima had a wind-up Victrola and many blues records, including those of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson. Riley became an avid fan of both artists. He also heard live blues when his mother's cousin, Bukka White, came to town to visit relatives. Bukka played his National steel guitar with a metal tube on his little finger, and was at the time one of the best bluesmen around. Booker T. Washington "Bukka" White already had some fame and had recorded blues songs for Victor Records.
In the late fall or early winter of 1939, Riley's grandmother Elnora Farr took sick. A ledger page from Edwayne Henderson's farming record for that year shows the ebb and flow of her debt in her last year as a sharecrop per. Between March and August she drew a monthly furnish of $5.00 from Mr. Henderson, who, himself, had borrowed most of it from the bank. It supported her and Riley while they raised their crop. On or after August 1, Henderson charged her account $2.05 for the cost of fertilizer (1/2 of 3 sacks @ $1.35) and $2.56 interest (S% on a balance of $32.05). Before settlement he credited her account with $10.00 and the notation "Bank," for a reason that is lost to us. Her share of the crop brought $25.27. So, for the year to date she was sixty-six cents ahead-a small miracle in the life of a sharecropper.
Henderson then doled out $8.00 to her in November and December and charged her thirty cents for "Black Draught" (a bottled remedy), five cents for "lemons," ten cents for "oil," and thirty cents for "wicks," for a total of $8.75. The black draught probably indicates the onset of her illness. Two last charges tell the end of her story: An $8.00 payment to "Dr. Flowers" and $5.00 to "Lee Funeral Home," which left her $21.75 in debt to the landowner at the time of her burial.
Elnora Farr died at the Winona Infirmary on January 15, 1940, at fifty years old, cause of death unknown. In his ledger Henderson credited her account for $18.12 the following March (or May) with the notation "By Cash Rental check." In Henderson's ledger "Rental check" referred to a government agricultural subsidy. This notation could mean that Elnora's son, Riley's Uncle William, paid his mother's debt with his own share of the government subsidy or that he turned over money she (and Riley) had coming from the government settlement. Either way, from her grave she still owed Henderson $3.63.
Elnora Farr's passing left Riley in a precarious situation: With his mother and grandmother dead and his father's whereabouts unknown, he was on his own, a virtual orphan. Riley accepted Henderson's offer to let him stay in the cabin he'd occupied with his grandmother and raise cotton on one acre of land.
Here then was Riley, age fourteen, living alone, share cropping an acre of cotton, living on a borrowed allowance of $2.50 a month. When the crop was harvested, Riley ended his first year of independence owing his landlord $7.54. The rental check for his acre was enough to pay off his debt.
A COUNTRY BOY IN THE COUNTY SEAT: LEXINGTON, MISSISSIPPI
Albert King had heard that Riley was alone, but it took some time before he could arrange to borrow a truck to fetch his son. "You all right, Jack?" Albert King said to
Riley, when he arrived in Kilmichael. "I got a truck outside. Just put your things in back and we'll go."
Suddenly, Riley was uprooted and transported to Lexington, Mississippi. He became a son again, a sibling to his half-brothers and half-sisters, a pupil in a public school, segregated, of course. His shock was profound. B. B. remembers feeling completely out of place and embarrassed by his stammer. Even more unsettling was the fact that his father was rarely home. Albert King worked driving a tractor on a plantation in Tchula, Mississippi, fifteen miles away, and could get home only on weekends.
There were other, harsher realities in the county seat. While delivering a basket of laundry his stepmother had washed and ironed for a white family, Riley saw a commotion near the courthouse. A group of white men were carrying the body of a black man to the front of the courthouse, where they hoisted it by a rope for all to see. Eyes open, mouth contorted, the body was, in the words sung by Billie Holiday some years later, "strange fruit" hanging there.
All this was all too much for the lonely, mixed-up boy. He resolved to return to Kilmichael.