By Sean McGowan

B.B. King came home in the back of a big black car, rolling like a windswept rag over Route 61. He moved unhurriedly through the Mississippi Delta, down from the jubilant, confetti-ridden streets of Memphis to a small city on the banks of the river called Indianola. They’d bury him there the next morning.

B.B. King's Funeral
When he pulled in there was a celebration on the streets, though nothing like the rowdy jazz funeral they’d thrown for him up on Beale Street. There was a reverence to this one, some regal sense of weight, a grave importance.

People lined the streets and sidewalks for miles. They gathered on rooftops and under overhangs, playing his records from apartment windows and jacked-up car stereos. All morning, the streets were rife with music. They let it play long after the hearse went by, when, after eight long decades of wandering, B.B. King came back to the only home he ever had.

B.B. King’s humble beginnings

Not that he was actually born or raised around there. The apartment buildings and sprawling manor houses were as alien to him as the ocean or the Amazon, and the stuffy working class people moved in this languid manner that he never quite understood. He came up only on occasion, from a little village down the road called Itta Bena, where he was born in a wooden cabin. When he wasn’t occupied at church or picking cotton in the fields, he’d make trip on his own, setting out on foot to busk for loose change. Making it home for the next morning’s wake-up call meant he often had to head home long before dusk. He always did.

The place was only of any real use to him during the day anyway, when the sun was up and the hot, unpaved streets were full. On summer afternoons, the town square was alive and bustling with ladies, lawyers and men of business, rushing through their days, but ready to listen. They were his first audience. The only one that ever really mattered.

He’d stand out on the sidewalks and street corners all day, running through old songs and gospel hymns he’d picked up in the church choir. They hit the air gently, like tissue paper on soft September grass.

Developing his voice

In those days he sang with a wonderfully sweet tenor, still unscathed by the whiskey, cigarettes, or sleepless nights on the road. The chords he could figure out came from a used guitar that he picked up for $15 with the wages from his fieldwork. When he bought it, he told the clerk that he’d be a famous blues singer.

The instrument was a terribly worn, ragged thing, made of rusted metal and cheap wood. The neck would bend in heat, and the strings sat so high off the fret board that getting any good notes out of them could draw blood from his fingertips. All the flat sevenths and major thirds got lost in a dissonant sludge, and the melodies went down and drowned with them. At his disposal, Riley B. King had no traditional chords, no one else’s words, and no tested, pre-written melodies.

kin2-014What he had were an instrument and a busker’s audience of passersby, neither of which was under any obligation to give a shit about him.

So he sang what he knew: little rhythmic poems about heartache, hard luck, and loneliness that had just started coming down to him on black radio stations. They were simple, and called only for a clear voice and two or three chords at a time. It was music that appealed to something primal in people, some basic part of their being that went untouched for most of the day. Like all the good stuff, his songs were honest and repetitive, with room enough for the expressive, world-weary wail of his guitar.

Playing with strings that’d hardly give him notes, he learned to bend them till they did. Under his hands the guitar became something else, an extension of his soul that expressed things you can’t get out in words. That style—the double stops, syncopations and hard bends—is what’ll live on long after his death.

There’s a power to those riffs and phrases that keeps people imitating them now. They come sweetly to the ear and mimic the sounds of the human heart, with an intimacy that’s hard to learn if you’ve never been a busker. He developed them to reach people on the streets who hadn’t paid to pay attention to him, and kept it up long after he was packing clubs and concert halls.

Remaining humble, despite fame

The audience widened and the stages got bigger, but B.B. King never really outgrew his roots. He didn’t have to. The music stayed subtle and enveloping, technically brilliant without any hints of pride or self-indulgence, and he never stopped giving it to people.

He didn’t do it for money or notoriety, refusing to call himself “King of the Blues” even as the rest of the world did. What kept him going for years, after he could barely walk or lift his arms, was a firm belief that music was what he was put on earth to do by God.

He knew that like he knew the sun was out or the ground was beneath his feet. Just like a good busker should.