Once a person has passed, the myth, the legend that they will become, begins in earnest. There are those whose lives have been so exceptional, so encompassing, so completely lived, that the legend begins long before they leave us to ponder and try to understand, and appreciate the life they have lived.
On May 14th, when B.B. King died, the world lost a beloved friend who had quietly mentored us all for over six decades. Through his kindness and grace, even in the face of years of prejudice and other adversity, he showed his fellow man love and compassion, urging us all to do the same.
In every life, with every human being, there are three perceptions of who a person is: How the world sees them, how they see themselves, and finally, what is. In addition to these perceptions which will mold and shape a legacy, there is the variable of time itself. This is a powerful force, never to be cast aside or dismissed without consideration.
King had said, “I was born on a plantation, and things weren’t so good. We didn’t have any money. I never thought of the word ‘poor’ ’til I got to be a man, but when you live in a house that you can always peek out of and see what kind of day it is, you’re not doing so well. And your rest room is not inside the house.”
While many are aware that King “grew up poor,” surprisingly, most do not know the extent of adversity he faced in his young, formative years. Born only miles from where the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center stands today, he subsequently moved with his mother Nora Ella to Kilmichael when she separated from his father. As a youngster, King walked three miles each way to a single room schoolhouse, which naturally, was segregated. He would work the cotton fields for pennies a day when the opportunity presented itself.
Ella’s death when King was only nine created a huge void for the youngster, who lost his best friend, and greatest comfort. That profound sense of loss would remain palpable throughout his life. He never even had a photograph of her. He told Billy Watkins of The Clarion-Ledger, “I would pay $100,000 — or whatever it would take — for a picture of her. I don’t even have a good picture of her in my mind. A lot of people back then thought if you let somebody take a picture of you, you were giving them your soul. Plus, taking pictures was complicated and expensive. We were country folks who didn’t have a lot of money.”
The following years instilled a deep understanding of poverty in the young King. Retiring each night to a sparse, one room shack without electricity, or a bathroom, reinforced a sense of isolation, and a desire to do better that would drive him the rest of his years. Add to this being in a constant state of hunger, and the ongoing climate of racism and segregation, and the terror it wrought all around him. Although he remembered these things all his life, he later observed “When people treat you mean, you dislike them for that, but not because of their person, who they are. I was born and raised in a segregated society, but when I left there, I had nobody I disliked other than the people that’d mistreated me, and that only lasted for as long as they were mistreating me.”
People know of B.B.’s music, his soulful vocals, and of course, his masterful guitar playing. Younger generations picture him in their mind’s eye as a consummate performer at the apex of his craft; after all, he was known as “The King of the Blues.” All of us have seen him play with the likes of friends such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Vaughan, Buddy Guy, and many more.
Older generations watched him perform in churches, and later, on the Chitlin’ Circuit where he worked long hours for little pay in an environment that was permeated with the institution of Jim Crow. King himself said, “I’ve put up with more humiliation than I care to remember.” He would endure these circumstances, and though he would never succumb to hating those that treated him unjustly and disrespectfully, the memories would stay with for the rest of his days.
King would later recall, “Touring a segregated America – forever being stopped and harassed by white cops hurt you most ‘cos you don’t realize the damage. You hold it in. You feel empty, like someone reached in and pulled out your guts. You feel hurt and dirty, less than a person.” King never let this dictate who he was, or how he treated people.
Ron Levy came to know King well, joining his band at 18, and staying with him for seven years, when he left to begin his own journey of discovery. King would come to refer to Levy as “my son.” He has devoted several chapters of his book Tales of a Road Dog to the years spent on the road with King.
Looking back on those years, Levy remarks, “You know, he dealt with the cards that he was given, and he found a way to maneuver within that. Actually, he had hard times throughout his whole life. Even after he died recently, there was still controversy, between his children and the management. It never ended there. At various times when I visited him, and talked to him, I mean it was just a list of things between IRS audits, management issues, divorces, worrying about his children, wondering about this and wondering about that. I mean, it never ended for him. Finally, now, he’s at peace. He doesn’t have to worry about anything anymore. That’s the good part about it.
“His health; that was a major concern. You know, for all the wonderful accolades that he received, trust me, he more than earned them, a hundred times over. The balance on the other side of that coin, I mean, is every day. He never stopped paying his dues.”
Humility and graciousness were a huge part of King’s personality, and reflected how he saw his fellow man. King often told people, “I don’t need to be remembered as any great artist. Better to be remembered as some guy who just might be your next-door neighbor. A guy looking to love you and hoping that you’ll love me too.” Levy remembers, “I never saw him leave before everyone who came to see him got to see him. The amazing thing about it too, as I wrote in my B.B. deal, he remembered everybody’s name. He could remember their wives’ names, their sons, their daughters, and their cousins. You know, even sometimes if he hadn’t seen them for 20 years. He just had an amazing capacity for that. When they spoke with him, as far as they knew, it was just the two of them, and they were probably the only two people in the world.
“He made everybody feel that whatever he or she had to say was the most important thing ever, and a lot of times, it wasn’t at all. Still, he had the patience and the humility to listen to everybody. He was phenomenally gifted that way. He was really amazing in that regard. That’s why I was saying that he was equal to any of the dignitaries that he ever met, that showered him with awards; he made them look good.”
Levy was one among many friends, family, and fans that attended King’s funeral procession from Memphis, Tennessee to Indianola, Mississippi. He will be adding chapters to Tales of a Road Dog regarding these events. He describes the outpouring of love for King he witnessed from Memphis to Indianola.
“It was incredible. He earned it 100 times over. The whole way, from Memphis, down to Indianola, on Route 61, is the old highway, and it’s the highway he took when he first went to Memphis. The trip usually takes three hours; it took six and a half hours because the hearse went slow. All along the whole highway, in every strip mall that he passed by, [in] everything that he passed by was a purple ribbon, and purple flowers, which is like what they do down south. They went half speed, and people came out, anticipating him passing by, to show their love for him. All through every town in Mississippi, or along Route 61; it was incredible.
“Every single place that I stopped at had a purple ribbon on the door, or a purple flower or bouquet, or whatever. Everywhere we went. Everywhere in Memphis, everywhere down Route 61, and then every place in Indianola.
“If you think about this, it’s incredible that in the B.B. King Museum is a cotton mill that; the actual building is a cotton mill that he once worked at as a kid. The street where they held the services on is called B.B. King Road. One block, I’m not sure of the direction, but one block to one side is Lucille Street, and the other matching street on the other side of the church is Reverend Matthews Street, from his dear friend, who was the manager of the first band he ever played in. It was a gospel group, and he was a teenager. So, I mean, look how far the country has come.
“When he was a little kid, sharecropping and up and down roads, either driving a tractor or picking cotton himself, what an incredible thing. He was honored by three different presidents; Clinton, George W, and Obama. They all had tributes to him. Bush gave him the highest civilian honor [The Presidential Medal of Freedom] that could be bestowed on anybody. Clinton and Obama had letters read at his funeral.
“You talk about turning something 180 degrees, he transformed the hate that was around into love.”
In eulogizing Coretta Scott King, former President Bill Clinton said “I don’t want us to forget that there’s a woman in there, not a symbol, a real woman who lived and breathed and got angry and got hurt and had dreams and disappointments. And I don’t want us to forget that.”
So it was with King; he was a living, breathing human being with faults like the rest of us. He was also the best of us. He taught us how persevere, and overcome obstacles in our path regardless of how substantial they may be. His life was an example of how to treat one another, lifting each other up through patience, humility, grace, and forgiveness. This is perhaps his greatest legacy.