Twenty Seconds with the King

By  |  October 2, 2014
"Dancers at Club Ebony," by Bill Steber "Dancers at Club Ebony," by Bill Steber

Naked bloated bellies floated in the swimming pool, hands clutching perspiring Michelob Ultra bottles, the edges of tattoos turning an oily green shade from sweat and chlorine. Splashing, giggling, chatter, and the smell of roasting pork filled the air. Next to the pool, a bulbous man in tight white pants and a black t-shirt was wedged into an iron patio chair. He pushed back in his seat, making himself bounce back and forth, his thick fingers gripping a fresh bottle, shaggy muttonchops tracing his soft jawline, sunglasses resting atop his head. He turned to the man sitting next to him as he took a slug of his beer. “What time’s old super nigger playing?” he asked, smirking. A couple people glanced in his direction but didn’t say anything.

“Eight o’clock, I think,” came the response.

The man nodded and went back to bouncing in his chair, apparently not worried that a group of white people might call him out for dropping a racial slur in Indianola, Mississippi, a town whose population is eighty percent black. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear it. After all, Indianola bore the White Citizens’ Council in 1954, and it’s the seat of Sunflower County, where Emmett Till was brutally murdered for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman; where civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer was intimidated, threatened, and kicked off her plantation home for attempting to register to vote—where, in 1986, four white school-board members refused to hire a qualified black candidate as superintendent and then, facing public outcry, secretly swore on a Bible not to retract their votes.

Indianola is also the hometown of B.B. King.

Almost every year since 1980, Indianola has celebrated the B.B. King Homecoming Festival. Though the date may change year to year because of King’s schedule, the event is practically a holiday. Thousands attend the one-day festival. Food trucks and street vendors appear; police look the other way as bottles of booze pass from hand to hand; lawn chairs and sun umbrellas unfurl next to large, sweaty families; coolers rattle with ice. A carnival used to come, but officials shut it down because carnies were breaking into residents’ homes. Kids who have grown up watching King play every summer take it for granted. It’s not until they leave Indianola and say they’ve seen B.B. King twelve times that the responding “oohs” and “aahs” inform them of their rare privilege.

But this year, the party was different. The town and King celebrated his thirty-fourth and final festival in Indianola.

 

“It was a real milestone for Indianola,” resident Marion Barnwell told Robert Palmer of the New York Times. The front-page headline read: AT MISSISSIPPI HOMECOMING, B.B. KING UNITES NEIGHBORS. June 8, 1983, is still regarded as a watershed night in the town’s history, a night when a common garden party took on an immense symbolic meaning and brought together Indianola and B.B. King.

According to Jim Abbott, former editor of Indianola’s newspaper, the Enterprise-Tocsin, and a founding member of Indianola’s Smithsonian-quality B.B. King Museum, as King’s fame and reputation grew in the Sixties, he decided to return home to perform at Club Ebony. After the show, a motel in town turned the band away, citing their race; they had to sleep in the bus. Offended, King steered clear of home after that, though it never wandered far from his thoughts. In 1977, he returned to Club Ebony (camping in the parking lot in an RV owned by Medgar Evers’s brother), and then in 1980 a local community group organized a proper homecoming show, free for all Indianolans, which became an almost-annual gig. In the early years, the shows were modest—King and his band performed on the back of two flatbed cotton trailers parked side by side—but slowly the town began to accept their most famous native son.

“The city gave him the key and named a street after him. They’d had a reception at the library or city hall. We took him around town and introduced him to the merchants, and had some autograph signings,” Abbott told me. “But there were some movers and shakers in town who never came to these opportunities.” In 1982, Abbott, then a member of the Chamber of Commerce, suggested the city help promote the homecoming shows, which were becoming more popular every year. He encountered a racism more entrenched than even he had realized.

“I heard the n-word,” Abbott said. “That’s what shocked me.” I pushed him to tell me exactly what the chamber member had said. Abbott squirmed, uncomfortable, but he finally told me that one member had stated, loudly, “We don’t need to get involved with that nigger music.”

That’s when he and his wife and three other prominent Indianola families planned a special garden party for the following year. They invited seventy-five white couples and seventy-five black couples; those deemed bigoted were especially targeted. It was to be the first truly desegregated social event in the town’s history and B.B. King would be its centerpiece.

Two nights before that year’s homecoming show, the garden party went off more perfectly than its nervous planners could have imagined. “I’ve been back to Indianola a number of times,” King told Palmer. “Last night, being able to shake hands with the elite of Indianola on a social basis, well, that was my real homecoming.” Near the party’s end, King, who had mingled happily with black and white Indianolans alike, stood on a small stoop and called for the crowd’s attention. He wanted to toast the partygoers, and Abbott regrets to this day he didn’t record King’s words. Near the end of the speech, King remarked that it was “the first time in my life I don’t feel like the prodigal son anymore. I feel like I’m home.”

 

“I’ll be at the museum a little after lunchtime,” Abbott said when I called him on my way down to Indianola for the Homecoming Festival in late May. The day before, a small stage was erected on a sun-seared plot of grass adjacent to the B.B. King Museum, a massive modern building of grey stone, red brick, and polished glass connected to an ancient cotton gin King himself had worked before he left town to seek musical success. The museum cost $15 million to build, and it’s as good as any I’ve been to.

We met in the lobby, surrounded by a diverse crowd: a Japanese man wearing a bowler hat and a Nirvana t-shirt, a Frenchman carrying a pure white soul patch beneath his lip; a little black kid with the words captain cool emblazoned across his shirt scampered by. “We got to get you to talk to B.B.,” Abbott said. “Let me go see.” He disappeared behind a set of metal sliding doors guarded by two burly bodyguards that apparently led to King, who I then realized was in the building. About thirty minutes later, Abbott came out and told me he’d gotten me a twenty-second interview.

“Man,” I said. “What am I going to ask him in twenty seconds?”

A reporter in a red Hawaiian shirt came forward: “I’ll do it in fifteen.” Abbott ignored him and we went in. A few people milled around a spread of ribs, pulled pork, corn on the cob, greens. At the other side of the cotton gin I saw the King of the Blues, sitting on a throne of cushioned red velvet, built for him by an artisan of Notodden, Norway, where Scandinavia’s largest blues festival is held. We approached him, but were pushed away by his bodyguard, Reggie. Abbott explained we had permission.

“Doesn’t matter,” Reggie said, escorting us back outside. “He needs to eat.”

We waited for another twenty minutes before filing in behind the B.B. King Museum AllStar Choir, a group of local kids. King still sat in his throne, but now he was wearily signing posters for family and friends. The choir danced their way toward the front singing “Ease on Down the Road” and then did a few gospel songs. They finished their set with Lorde’s “Royals.” The room emptied, and chatter filled the vacuum left behind. Nobody noticed me waiting there. Abbott spoke with King and eventually motioned for me to come up.

I had less than a minute, and King was tired. He had no need to be messing around with someone like me, there was nothing I could give him, but he was gracious and I was grateful for the chance to shake his hand.

As I walked away, I thought about how much King means to this town. Today, B.B. King is the heart of Indianola, his legend its lifeblood. Like many other towns in the Mississippi Delta, Indianola has suffered. ModernLine, Delta and Pineland, Dollar General, Monsanto, Supervalu, and Delta Pride, companies that once kept warehouses or manufacturing plants here, have closed up shop or downsized. Union battles and NAFTA have taken their toll. Work is hard to find. But in recent years the town’s leaders have attempted to refocus the economy on tourism. New restaurants and businesses are opening, and a new hotel is going up. Indianola has begun to market itself as a stop along the Blues and Freedom Trails, working with other Delta towns to create a breadcrumb path for the buses of tourists that visit Memphis every year.

Back inside the museum lobby, we saw an older black man in a suit struggling to walk. Abbott asked if he needed a ride home. The man said yes, and I stood and talked with him while Abbott went to get his car. The man remarked what a wonderful time it all was, how pleasant it was to see all these different people coming together. My eyes swept across the individuals within the foyer of the museum, and I thought about how nice and polite they all seemed.

Abbott walked up about ten minutes later, saying the car was ready. We both helped the man to the parking lot. Along the way a woman stopped us and asked, “So what famous bluesman are you?”

“I’m not a bluesman, ma’am,” the old man responded. “I’m a reverend.”

 “Oh, sorry,” the woman said and walked off toward the museum. Before we got to the car we were stopped again, this time by a college student from Ole Miss. He asked if he could take a picture. He thought the reverend was B.B. King.

Later that evening, King took the stage, an eighty-eight-year-old man who has come to the end of his career, but he’s still the greatest living Mississippian, the King of the Blues. After some banter with the audience, people began to chant “Lu-cille! Lu-cille! Lu-cille!” and King picked up his guitar and broke into “The Thrill Is Gone.” And, in that moment, his performance felt like an unbelievable triumph. B.B. King was onstage and he was working it. His playing may not have been the tightest or the most beautiful it had ever been, but the spirit of the blues was alive in that place, and people swung their hips and danced, singing along with him to “Every Day I Have the Blues,” and “Rock Me Baby.” His seventy-year career fluttered before us as he sang those songs, his life and work all but over, and now it was up to us to wish him well.


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Phil McCausland lives in New Orleans. His writing has appeared in VICE, the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications.