On last Thursday, our culture and the world lost a giant of a man when the great bluesman B.B. King passed on to the next world, where I am sure he is gearing up to entertain as he did here.
What is most important is that we not concentrate on the lost of the physical man, but instead on the legacy of his music. B.B. King left his imprint on the culture much in the same way as Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois did in academics, Richard Wright in literature, and Jackie Robinson in sports. For that reason what he accomplished will live on. What more can an individual do in the short amount of time he/she visits this place called earth.
As far back as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson and Ethel Waters, blues has been one of the mainstays of music within the African American culture. Many argue it is an off-spring of spirituals and just like Paul Robeson brought spirituals out of the cotton fields of the South to Strivers Row in Harlem, singers like Muddy Waters and B.B. King brought blues to the cities of America and that is why it must be considered as an important foundation within the culture.
Many of us can remember and still appreciate the men and women who sang the blues over the years. We can still hear Muddy Waters singing, “Got My Mojo Working,” or Little Walter playing the harmonica and also singing, “My Babe.” How about Z.Z. Hill, “Cheating in the Next Room,” and “Down Home Blues.” And of course there was B.B King’s counterpart, Bobby Blue Bland who gave us, “Members Only, It’s a private party. Don’t need no money to qualify. Don’t bring your checkbook. Bring your broken heart ’cause it’s members only tonight.” I can’t leave out Johnnie Taylor with, “We’re Getting Careless with our Love,” and “I Believe in You, You Believe in Me.”
Then there was Lattimore telling his woman, “Let’s Straighten It Out.” Now some of you probably will disagree with my categorization of Bobby Womack as a singer of the blues, but I feel that his “If You Think You’re Lonely Now, Wait Until Tonight Girl,” and “That’s The Way I Feel About ’Cha,” is close enough to be considered in that genre of music. The same can be true of Etta James when she sang, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (to stop now),” and of course, “At Last.” This music and all these artists brought something magical to Black America. They made it honorable to be Black and tolerable to be poor.
The one person who best personified that magic was B. B. King. When he sang and played Lucille, one felt centuries of struggle, strife, compassion, love and endurance. If you listen closely to the words in the song, “Why I Sing the Blues,” you get entertainment, history and empowerment. No matter where you lived in this country, be it Brown Bottom in Jackson, Mississippi, Southside of Chicago, Hastings Street in Detroit, Watts in Los Angeles, or Harlem in New York, the sounds of B.B. King could be heard coming from tenement houses, row houses, apartments and projects, nightclubs and local bars, and even in parks on any given Saturday night or Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving or just a plain old weekend.
The King of the Blues was returned to his home state of Mississippi for burial. He had chosen Indianola as his home even though he was born in the very tiny country town, Berclair near Itta Bena. He chose not to be buried in Las Vegas, Nevada where he passed away, but in the Delta, the very roots of his beginning. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant ended his tribute to the state’s greatest musician with the quote, “He is the King. The thrill is gone.” Well, the governor got it half right. He is still the King; however, he also got it half wrong. The thrill is not gone and it will never leave us because of the grace and beauty of our culture captured in his music. The legacy has just begun.