SCOTT SIMON, host:
The Loueo Plains(ph) of the Mississippi delta spawned a legion of blues men in the 1940s and '50s, but maybe none more famous today than Riley B. King. Yesterday in Indianola, Mississippi, the man better known a B.B. King broke ground on a new $10 million museum that's devoted to his life and career. The Grammy Award-winning guitar player turns 80 years old in September and still plays a full performance schedule. That couldn't keep him from heading back to his home for this special event. From Indianola, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.
WADE GOODWYN reporting:
This is where it began, in the back bedroom of an Indianola shack. Young B.B. King's mother had died, and he'd gone to live with his uncle. After church on Sunday afternoons, everyone gathered for supper, and the reverend would put his guitar on the bed while the adults ate.
Mr. B.B. KING (Blues Guitar Player): When they'd go and eat, the guitar's on the bed, B.B. King, on the bed where the guitar is. And usually, I never got caught, but one day I guess they ate a little faster or something or I stayed a little too long. They caught me on the bed with the guitar. So my uncle was a very straight, strict guy. He didn't--no nonsense from the kids. He was about to get ready to, you know, kind of touch me up there. So the preacher said, `No, don't bother him. He seem like he's interested in it.'
GOODWYN: So instead of a beating by his uncle, the seven-year-old Riley B. King got a lesson in playing the one, four and five chords from the good reverend.
Mr. KING: He showed me three chords. He showed me that. It seemed like it was yesterday.
(Soundbite of King playing guitar)
Mr. KING: (Singing) I heard it's 3:00 in the morning, can't even close my eyes.
GOODWYN: For King, the blues were still to come. In the beginning, he was a cotton chopper. Back in the 1940s, if you worked on the plantations, you worked half a day on Saturday, too. But Saturday evening brought a different kind of work. Carver Randall is one of B.B. King's oldest friends, a lawyer who still lives and works in Indianola.
Mr. CARVER RANDALL (King's Friend): This is a corner where B.B. used to play his guitar. This was a bakery shop where a black guy worked to bake the bread on Saturday, even late, so it would be fresh Sunday. B.B. would talk him into allowing him to plug his guitar into the extension cord. He would stand here on the corner and play on Saturday evening.
GOODWYN: At King's feet was an upturned hat that usually remained empty. So when the sun went down, he would walk along Church Street deeper into the black district. There, he'd set up shop on the sidewalk outside the juke joints. And instead of gospel, King would rip into the blues. His hat quickly filled. And Randall says B.B. King learned a little lesson about the music business.
Mr. RANDALL: I think people probably like the blues a little more than they do the gospel. And maybe the people who like the blues are the people who spent more freely, you know.
GOODWYN: Shall we get in your car and you can show me around?
Mr. RANDALL: OK. We'd be glad to. Come on, let's ride.
GOODWYN: Randall pulls out and heads toward the railroad tracks. On the other side, black Indianola thrived in the 1940s and '50s.
Mr. RANDALL: Now we just crossed the railroad track, and we are headed down into an area that used to be very festive on Saturday evenings. If you've ever been on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, you would know what I'm talking about. This is the way this street was.
GOODWYN: It was this place that nurtured the young guitar player. Soon, King was off the sidewalk playing inside the clubs, blues palaces like Club Ebony.
(Soundbite of King performing)
Mr. KING: (Singing) I found the love.
GOODWYN: If you took a map of the South and plotted where most of the great blues guitarists came from, it would look like you threw a handful of pepper up the Mississippi delta. Carver Randall says that chopping cotton for 12 hours a day in the searing sun was a powerful motivator to practice. When a few had success, others followed in their footsteps.
Mr. RANDALL: I think the hardship of the delta and the black experience in the delta was the thing that encouraged a lot of people to go into the blues. And gospel, as well, now. Gospel was an escape. My father was a musician, a pianist. When things got very difficult for us, financially and socially and otherwise, he would resort to the piano and play spirituals until he satisfied himself.
GOODWYN: Club Ebony gave B.B. King more than just his start. It also gave him his wife. Sue Evans(ph) was a beautiful 15-year-old whose mother owned the club. Evans was behind the bar serving drinks and the young B.B. did not fail to notice.
Ms. SUE EVANS: I was kind of used to seeing a lot of musicians come through, but he was a little different.
GOODWYN: King was good looking, talented and quietly sure of himself. Sue Evans was attracted from the start. They married and Evans began living life on the road.
(Soundbite of "The Thrill Is Gone")
Mr. KING: (Singing) The thrill is gone, the thrill has gone away.
GOODWYN: But life on the road was too exhausting and after 10 years Evans and King divorced. And the rumor is that B.B.'s song, "The Thrill Is Gone," is about Sue. When asked if this is true, Evans plays coy.
Ms. EVANS: Well, I'm not gone. No, we've been very close all through that time.
GOODWYN: At the museum groundbreaking, Sue Evans was right there with the rest of Indianola.
Unidentified Man #1: Good morning. This is a great day in Mississippi and we welcome all of you.
GOODWYN: Mississippi's politicians jockeyed to get on stage with the king. And when asked why of all the delta guitar players did B.B. King rise to the top, King first credits his manager, his record companies, his agents. But when pressed again, King admits about himself what everyone says. He just wanted it more.
Mr. KING: Oh, yes, I always wanted it, yeah. I found that it was a way to make a better life for myself, my family and try to educate my kids.
Unidentified Man #2: Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to break ground for the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.
GOODWYN: B.B. King plans to build a large mansion in Indianola. He's picked out the land and the driveway is already dug. Upon his death, the house will go to the town as an addition to the museum. King hopes this will turn Indianola into a tourist attraction and guarantee its future.
(Soundbite of groundbreaking activity)
GOODWYN: But all that will have to wait. After turning his shovel full of dirt, B.B. King got back on his bus and headed off to a European tour.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Indianola, Mississippi.
(Soundbite of King performing)
Mr. KING: (Singing) And she gave me a 20 dollar bill. Yeah, she know (unintelligible) go out and have a good time.
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.