September 16, 1925
He remembers witnessing the lynching of a young black man by the Ku Klux Klan. The young boy had whistled at a white girl, so the white mob castrated him, then lynched him. It was something he said he could never forget.
Riley was the son of a sharecropper, and the great-grandson of an enslaved man. He was born on this day, September 16, 1925, on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, near Indianola. By the time he was 14, his mother was dead, and his father was gone. The grandmother who was taking care of him also died thereafter.
“Raised singing gospel music in church, [he] picked cotton and drove tractors before taking to playing guitar, after being taught by his preacher uncle,” according to The Root.
He was living on $2.50 a month. As he recalled, “Growing up on the plantation there in Mississippi, I would work Monday through Saturday noon. I’d go to town on Saturday afternoons, sit on the street corner, and I’d sing and play.”
Soon, as he became more well known for his guitar playing, he would be called “Blues Boy,” a name which stuck, but was shortened to “B.B.”
B.B. King was featured in today’s Google Doodle, honoring the great blues legend. “The video was art directed by Oakland-based Angelica McKinley, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, where King first began recording. McKinley said she hopes the video will help people understand the magnitude of King’s life”, according to CNN.
“Without having a full formal education and the guidance of his parents, King took the talent that he was given in a time period that wasn’t kind to black people and devoted himself to sharing music that was the pulse of the Mississippi Delta with the rest of the world,” McKinley said. “This music was created from pain that he knew all too well, but King decided to own it.”
According to CNN, “over his career, he was nicknamed “The King of the Blues.” He earned a long list of honors — a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, a Presidential Medal of Freedom — but never rested on his laurels. He kept up a relentless touring schedule well into his 80s.”
“Often imitated but never duplicated, B.B. King’s sound became a blueprint for many of the world’s biggest rock stars who followed,” according to The Root. He influenced many of the great rock guitarists of the era, including Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
“I wish I could just do like B. B. King,” John Lennon once said. “If you would put me with B. B. King, I would feel real silly.”
“Named one of the greatest guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone, King won 15 Grammys and sold more than 40 million records worldwide — considered a remarkable number for the blues,” according to The Root.
B.B. King saw a lot of things in his lifetime, a lot of bad things, but also some good things. He got to jam at the White House with a black President. He was honored with a B.B. King Day in Mississippi, which he noted had the confederate ensign in its state flag.
From walking behind a mule all day in the heat picking cotton to feeling the love of fans who adored and respected him as he picked on his $30 guitar, which he had named “Lucille” (the story goes he was playing at a dance hall in the 50s, when two men got into a fight, knocking over a kerosene stove and causing a fire. After everyone had evacuated, King remembered he had left his guitar and ran back into the burning building to rescue it. He found out the two men were fighting over a woman named “Lucille”. King would thereafter address his guitars “Lucille”.)
He also remembers having to stay in segregated black hotels, eating at segregated black restaurants.
“I’ve put up with more humiliation than I care to remember,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Touring a segregated America – forever being stopped and harassed by white cops hurt you most cos you don’t realise 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.”
According to the New York Times, he remembered how angry he became when he was introduced “in an elegant Chicago club with ‘O.K., folks, time to pull out your chitlin’s and your collard greens, your pigs’ feet and your watermelons, because here is B. B. King.'”
He also remembered the night he stayed at the same hotel as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the same night “they bombed the place.”
But, he also remembered when he appeared in 1968 at the Fillmore West, the San Francisco rock palace. When he saw “longhaired white people” lining up outside the Fillmore, he told his road manager, “I think they booked us in the wrong place.” But, when he was introduced, “Everybody stood up, and I cried,” King said. “That was the beginning of it.”
King was also noted for giving back to his community, giving his support to programs for prisoners and prison reform. He also was an official supporter of Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit organization that provides free musical instruments and instruction to children in underprivileged public schools throughout the United States, as well as being involved in a diabetes awareness campaign.
Through all this, he did appreciate the love, support, and respect he has received, and he always wanted to give his best. Even when he was declining and his diabetes worsened, he would apologize to his audience if he felt he did a bad show.
And, even in his later years, he always wanted to learn and do better.
“I think I’ve done the best I could have done,” he said in one interview. “But I keep wanting to play better, go further. There are so many sounds I still want to make, so many things I haven’t yet done. When I was younger I thought maybe I’d reached that peak. But I’m 86 now, and if I make it through to next month, I’ll be 87. And now I know it can never be perfect, it can never be exactly what it should be, so you got to keep going further, getting better.”
One of his most memorable quotes is “The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you.”
“We’ve come a long, long way,” he would say, “but we ain’t come far enough. There’s still a long, long way to go.”
In another interview, when he was asked whether he felt he made a difference, he would say, “I’d like to think I made a lil’ footprint in the sand.” He then put his arm around a young boy sitting next to him, and said, “This here little boy’s the same age as me when I was holding the reins of a mule. He won’t never know those times, but I wonder what this boy will grow up to do. I wonder . . .”
At his funeral, the Rev. Herron Wilson would say, “Hands that once picked cotton would someday pick guitar strings on a national and international stage. Amazing.”