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Ronda Rich: The birth of B.B. King’s blues
Ronda Rich
Ronda Rich

You probably know that the crying songs of the blues rose up from the flat, silvery cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. You’ve probably heard the legend of Robert Johnson who is said to have sold his soul to the devil in trade for the ability to play a blues guitar like no one else.

 And, perhaps, you know that the greatest blues guitarist in modern history, B.B. King, sprouted up from a cotton field near Itta Bena, Mississippi.

But did you know that the nearby small town of Indianola hosts an astounding state-of-the-art B.B. King Museum which opened in 2008 before King died in 2015?

 I didn’t know that until the day I had been to Greenville, Mississippi, to attend Rotary with Delta Democrat Times publisher Jon Alverson. I was headed back to Greenwood on Highway 82 where I was staying at one of my favorite hotels, the Alluvian, when I stopped at a red light. A sign said, “B.B. King Museum” with an arrow pointing down a side street. I decided to follow it, expecting to find a little house with a couple of rooms of King memorabilia. Kinda like the Hank Williams house in Georgiana, Alabama, the place where a man locked the front door just as I put my hand on the knob to enter. It was four o’clock and time to close. That’s another story.

The museum is incredible. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay simply because I needed to get back to Greenwood and meet a deadline. In addition to being a tribute to a terrific musician and fine man, the museum is blessed to have a gentleman named Robert Terrell as director of operations.

“Let me show you around!” he offered cheerfully. “You have to see this.”

The story of B.B. King’s life is powerful. He was born into a poor, cotton picking family. When he was 9, his mother, Nora Ella, died at 29, probably of diabetes, the same disease that plagued King. On her deathbed, she said to the young boy, “Always be kind. It will bring you lots of good things in life.”

And so he was. Always. Kind to the fans, kind to other musicians, kind to ex-wives, kind to the people who all worked for him a long time.

When his grandmother died a year later, Riley, as he was called then (B.B. is short for Blues Boy, a nickname he was given), lived by himself until he was 14.

“The blues weren’t written,” said a preacher friend of King’s. “It was lived.”

Robert took me to an exhibit which has the exact items from King’s office in Las Vegas where he lived out his life.

“Now, you probably wouldn’t notice this but let me show you something,” he said. “Because he was by himself when he was a boy, he didn’t like the dark. He always wanted light. Look at how many lights (lamps) he had. And look at all the flashlights.” He started counting them off. There were six or seven in a small space.

Robert loves his job. Really loves it. Excitedly, he took me over to interactive panels. “Here, you have to hear this.” He held up headphones so I could hear an original version of a song by ablues pioneer, then hear how King played the same song.

Together, we sat on the bus, a replica of a B.B. King bus, and watched the video about his life on the road. King is even buried there in a handsome grave next to the museum.

“Before he died, he used to come in and tell stories about the different guitars or about a picture like that one of him over in Russia. It was really something to hear.”

There is a quote on a wall from B.B. King in which he wistfully said that he would give all he had just to have a photo of his mama.

Now, I understand the sadness in his voice and the woeful moan of his guitar.


Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words: A Memoir Of Mama.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter. Her column appears Tuesdays.

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