A Funeral for Blues Boy
By Elizabeth Sims
Riley’s mother was a religious woman and made him go to church every Sunday. That’s where he fell in love with gospel music and where his blind mother left a lasting impression on her son about faith and purpose. When she died, he lived with his grandmother – until she, too, died, and he found himself in a little wooden shack in the middle of the Mississippi Delta, alone in the world at age 14.
Imagine the boy singing quietly. Maybe “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
With no plumbing or electricity, Riley laid on a pile of blankets the white sharecropper he picked cotton for had given him. He also gave Riley this shack as a place to live. The sky was deep black with no stars or moon to shed any light. He had placed two-by-fours across the rickety door to keep anyone or anything from coming inside the shack, but that didn’t do anything to stop the noises.
He asked the Lord for protection but he could hear the sound of critters just outside his door. Raccoons? Wild dogs? Wildcats? Wolves? They rustled through the fields around him, and he listened to them grunt and howl and dig in the ground. He was terrified and kept praying harder and harder but soon tears flowed down his face, out of a young man’s paralyzing fear.
B.B. King was terrified of the dark for the rest of his life.
I never had to experience this sort of raw, primal fear growing up as a middle-class white girl in middle Tennessee. This young boy’s utter aloneness, his heart beating out of his chest, is unfathomable to me. Thinking about it jump-starts my maternal instincts into protective overdrive.
Riley “B.B.” King grew up to be the greatest blues musician of all time. But he never got over his intense fear of darkness. He surrounded himself by flashlights, lamps, lanterns and candles everywhere he lived, worked and traveled.
In a very real sense, his music was about pushing out the darkness, every time he picked up Lucille.
I was headed to Indianola, Miss., to lend a hand at B.B. King’s funeral. My friend Carol, who was one of the founders of the B.B. King Museum, asked me to come do some media wrangling. How could I not be there? But as I drove down I-55, even though Siri kept insisting I continue down the interstate, I veered off at Tupelo and drove Highway 61, the famous Delta Blues Highway, the mythical crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for the chance to play the blues.
Myths and spooky legends are at home here although the Delta is a holy place. It’s rich, alluvial soil spreads out in fields that seem endless. There’s nothing but a horizon in front of you. As I drove through at dusk, the light bounced off puddles of water like diamonds, and cotton-ball cumulus clouds mounted toward an inevitable thunderstorm.
When I got to Indianola, the streets were filled with people, purple ribbons and purple balloons, a clarinet, boom boxes and folding chairs. This would be the final stop of the three-hour funeral procession from Memphis along the same Blues Highway I had just traveled. B.B.’s voice poured out into the street. I joined the crowd and watched as city and county officials drove past. (It’s election time and each vehicle had a campaign sign on the car door, including, ironically the county coroner.)
People along the street reached out to touch it. Hundreds of purple balloons were released into the Delta sky. As the entourage reached the mortuary, the mayor of Indianola seemed stunned.
“We were driving into town and had B.B.’s music playing in all the cars and just as we hit the city line, on came ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ — the long version, he said. “And it ended right as we got to the funeral home.”
B.B. was home at last.
Although Indianola was birthplace of the White Citizens’ Council and site of voting rights abuse, it has a different vibe from other Delta towns. For over 35 years, Indianola’s disparate communities – divided by the proverbial railroad track through the center of this town of 10,000 – worked together to produce B.B.’s annual homecoming event. A free concert every year, even when he and his band members weren’t allowed to stay in a hotel or eat at some of the restaurants.
The community also worked together to create the museum that honors him in a restored cotton gin. So, on the event of his death, the community knew what it had to do. Because they had planned for the inevitable.
The museum team, community leaders, friends of King, blues historians – a decidedly diverse collaborative – had worked to make the funeral happen. There were moments of tiptoeing around issues of race and funeral customs and quite a few funny cultural misunderstandings they would laugh about later.
But there was an unspoken tension around the planning table.
The truth is in 2015, race relations in America are as strained as any time since the Civil Rights Movement. In the Mississippi Delta, the specter of slavery and segregation and atrocities and violence and the corruption of human rights still hover in the humid air.
But the members of the planning team shared a common goal: to make this thing happen like an African-American funeral in the rural South needs to happen. To celebrate the life and mourn the death of Riley “Blues Boy” King. To properly bring him home and place his solid bronze casket, with honor and respect, deep in the Mississippi mud.
B.B. King, in life, and now in death, bridged the racial gap and did what he did so beautifully – inviting everybody to the table. Beneath the veneer of familiarity and common purpose, there had been tension. Everyone knew it and everyone felt it. But the team was up to the challenge. Together they wrestled the ghost of racial injustice to the ground and won, all because Lucille told them to.
If, in the South, you can’t have a proper funeral without some family drama, then B.B. King’s funeral was more the stuff of a “CSI” episode.
He died in Las Vegas on Wednesday, May 14. A memorial service there, where he made his home when he wasn’t on the road, was planned for the next week, and the body was to return to Mississippi the following Wednesday, May 21, for the funeral and burial at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola.
But two of his daughters, Karen Williams and Patti King, signed affidavits saying they believed their father was murdered, accusing his long-time manager LaVerne Toney of poisoning the King of the Blues. They demanded an autopsy.
In 2014, five of King’s children had petitioned the court, saying they wanted more involvement in their father’s care and affairs. King’s business manager Toney was a trusted confidante and had power of attorney as well as oversight of all of his finances and medical care. But some of the family distrusted her.
The autopsy results are still not in. The process caused a delay in getting B.B.’s body home. Now, the daughters are leading a charge insisting there’s a hidden will.
With King’s body in Las Vegas and the autopsy completed, there was fear of what might happen next. Wanting his remains to be honored and properly prepared for burial in Mississippi, his closest family and friends, including Toney, arranged to fly the body to Memphis on Monday, May 25, 11 days after his death.
Of course, some of the family didn’t know this. Neither did the public.
A huge procession was scheduled for two days later on Beale Street in Memphis.
So where should B.B. King’s body be for 48 hours?
LaVerne and other family members and supporters asked Victor Byas for help. Victor, a strong, powerful man and a close friend of B.B.’s, has done very well for himself as owner of several funeral homes all over the Delta. So Victor quietly and discreetly drove to Memphis that Monday, May 25, when the body arrived from Las Vegas, picked up his friend and took him home to Indianola to be readied for heaven.
In order to avoid any additional drama — which was already in ample supply among family members — Byas drove the body back to Memphis in the dead of the night early Wednesday morning, May 27. It was time for the Beale Street procession, and everyone believed B.B. King was just arriving from Las Vegas.
When B.B.’s family began to fill the viewing room that Friday morning, nobody mentioned the Memphis-to-Indianola-to-Memphis secret interlude. The team working to make the funeral run smoothly held its collective breath in hopes there wouldn’t be a big fight.
A large black stallion was strapped with two of B.B.’s beloved Lucilles – one on each side. The stirring Baptist funeral service in a packed little church up the road finished a little early. A menacing thunderstorm held up the procession to the museum so everyone waited. One of B.B.’s oldest friends, blues singer Dorothy Moore, shook her head. “He was our black Elvis,” she said. “He paved the road for me and for so many others. The blues will go on because of him.”
Sitting in silence, waiting for the funeral procession to arrive and listening to an intense storm hammer the metal roof of the building, Dr. Edgar Smith, who had given B.B. an honorary degree from Tugaloo College years before, grabbed Dorothy’s hands. He bowed his head and sang.
The sky is crying
Tears are rolling down the street
The day before, blues icon Buddy Guy said, “Losing B.B. is like losing my mother or losing my father. He was just somebody who should never go away.”
Finally, the funeral procession arrived, the coffin was carried to the gravesite, the family stepped out of black limousines onto the muddy ground and moved toward the funeral tent. They gathered to pay final tribute to this blues legend who had touched the four corners of the world, who had demonstrated through the journey of his life that through good and bad, hard times and triumphs, he was all about pure, sweet, honest love.
Some faint blues riffs drifted from Club Ebony, a few blocks over. Everyone recognized the significance of being here. We all prayed that the man — the legend, the King of the Blues, the father and husband and lover and humanitarian — was walking into the light. That he would walk in the light for all eternity.
And we prayed that heaven would have a juke joint big enough to hold Riley King and Lucille — the one woman who was always true and could never do him wrong, the one woman Riley loved unconditionally. A joint big enough to hold all that mighty, holy, Delta music they just couldn’t stop playing together.
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