Mississippi's Beloved Blues-Playing Son Comes Home

May 31, 2015
Originally published on May 31, 2015 8:12 am
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The King of the Blues has been laid to rest back home in Mississippi. B.B. King died May 14 at his home in Las Vegas. But this past week, he made the final journey back to where he rose from a hardscrabble sharecropper to a world famous blues man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE THRILL IS GONE")

B.B. KING: (Singing) The thrill is gone. The thrill is gone away.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Debbie Elliott reports on King's funeral from Indianola, Mi.

DEBBIE ELLIOT, BYLINE: This weekend was both home going and a final home coming for Riley B. King, the Mississippi Delta native who became an ambassador for the blues around the world. It was standing room only for his service at Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church located on B.B. King Road in Indianola.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Why don't you swing down chariot, stop and let me ride? Swing down chariot, stop and let me ride. Oh, Lord.

ELLIOT: King's family walked by his open casket a final time, an image of his beloved guitar Lucille embroidered inside the lid.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)

REVEREND HERRON WILSON: Will you join me in welcoming home Indianola's and Mississippi's native son, Mr. B.B. King?

(APPLAUSE)

ELLIOT: The Reverend Herron Wilson gave the eulogy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)

WILSON: In many ways, we can look at the life of B.B. King and be inspired and be encouraged. Hands that once picked cotton would someday pick guitar strings on a national and international stage. Amazing.

(APPLAUSE)

ELLIOT: Speakers from politicians to fellow musicians all remembered King's loving spirit, his hard work and his commitment to his native Mississippi. For decades, he hosted annual homecoming shows. But friend and a local attorney Carver Randle says he did much more.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)

CARVER RANDLE: B.B. was a catalyst that began the serious effort here in Indianola to bridge the social gap between the races.

ELLIOT: In perhaps a final gesture to his hometown, King asked to be buried on the grounds of the B.B. King museum in Delta Interpretive Center. His body was flown from Las Vegas to Memphis last week where a musical procession led his hearse down Beale Street. That's where he got his start earning the nickname Beale Street Blues Boy, later shortened to B.B. The hearse then headed down Highway 61, the Blues Highway, through Mississippi accompanied by an honor guard who escorted King's body to Indianola for a public viewing at the museum. On Friday, thousands of blues fans came through to pay their last respects.

EARNESTINE RATLIFF: He just looked - he looked like a angel just playing there, and he looked real good.

ELLIOT: Earnestine Ratliff is a gospel singer with the Mississippi Mass Choir. She says he put this state on the map. There's a palpable sense of pride here that B.B. King made it from the plantation to the world stage. State Senator David Jordan.

DAVID JORDAN: Son of a sharecropper, chopped gin cotton, picked cotton, did whatever was told and called the n-word sometime. And then when you go home at noon, you wife had caught the Greyhound bus and left. You and got nothing but the blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF B.B. KING SONG)

ELLIOT: Jobs are hard to come by in the Mississippi Delta; still one of the poorest areas in the country. Much like Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis, Jordan says the region will benefit from B.B. King's museum and gravesite.

JORDAN: He belonged to the delta soil, and it's going to make tourism and everybody proud. They'll come here to see the museum. They'll come here to see the greatest person ever to produce the blues - and from Mississippi. That's strange how God can make things work out.

ELLIOT: B.B. King died earlier this month in hospice care. He was 89 years old. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Indianola, Mi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY I SING THE BLUES")

KING: (Singing) Everybody want to know why I sing the blues. Yes, I say everybody want to know why I sing the blues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.