By Monica Land
KILMICHAEL – The town of Kilmichael had a lot to sing about Tuesday afternoon when the “King of the Blues”, B.B. King stopped by for the unveiling of the latest marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
King, 86, is in Mississippi this week for his annual B.B. King Homecoming Festival in Indianola, but he, and the town of Kilmichael were honored Tuesday by the Mississippi Development Association Tourism Division (MDA).
The “Kilmichael: Roots of B.B. King” blues marker was unveiled at 105 Depot Avenue in the heart of Kilmichael’s town square.
Hundreds of fans and local and Montgomery County officials attended the unveiling which was hosted by Mistress of Ceremonies Dr. Katrina Poe of the Kilmichael Hospital and Clinic.
Kilmichael’s mayor Ryan Wood presented King with a key to the city and made a resolution declaring Aug. 21 as “B.B. King Day” in Kilmichael.
“We are so excited to have Mr. King here,” Wood said. “And this whole event means a lot to the town of Kilmichael. The fact that he has ties here to the town – and there’s just not that many people that we have a connection to that have touched as many generations as he has with his music.”
Senator Gary Jackson spoke during the ceremony as did Representative Bobby Howell and Alex Thomas of the MDA, who presented King with numerous Mississippi Tourism gifts.
“B.B. King is one of Mississippi’s most prominent native sons, and it’s such an honor to be able to recognize him with this Mississippi Blues Trail marker,” Thomas said. “It’s truly special that B.B. [was] present for the unveiling ceremony, particularly considering all his other awards and musical accolades. But B.B. is always supportive of our state – and his hometown – and takes great pride in talking about his humble beginnings.”
King has long acknowledged his connection to Kilmichael spending several years there during the 1930s and 40s.
Born Riley B. King in the Delta, 50 miles west of Kilmichael in 1925, King said his first mentor on the guitar was the Reverend Archie Fair, who played while preaching at a local church.
King credited his teacher at the one-room Elkhorn School, Luther Henson, with instilling in him dignity, independence and hope, qualities that have served King well during his long career.
B. B. King is most often associated with his adopted “hometown” of Indianola, but it was in Kilmichael, in Mississippi’s hill country region, that he first decided to pursue music.
King was born in tiny Berclair, and following the breakup of his parents, Albert and Nora Ellen, when he was 4-years-old, he and his mother moved to Kilmichael, where they lived with her mother, Elnora Farr. She was a sharecropper on the farm of Edwayne Henderson, where young Riley also picked cotton.
King recalls that he first heard the blues in Kilmichael via the unaccompanied singing of field hands and his uncle “Big Jack” Bennett, as well as at the home of his Aunt Mima, who had a phonograph and records by blues artists including Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, both important influences on King’s later music. She also owned a pump organ on which King first learned about chords.
The most important musical influence on King in Kilmichael was the Reverend Archie Fair (1907-1959), the brother-in-law of King’s uncle William Pullian, who preached at the Austin Chapel Sanctified Church. King was entranced by the dynamic quality of Fair’s guitar playing and singing while he led services, and during a visit to King’s home Fair let young Riley hold his guitar and showed him three basic chords. King first performed, though, as a singer, and formed the Elk Horn Jubilee Singers together with his cousin, Birkett Davis.
Luther Henson, a graduate of Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., taught King at a one-room schoolhouse located on the grounds of the Elkhorn Baptist Church. Henson inspired his students by teaching them about positive African American role models, using materials including the African American newspaper, Oklahoma City Black Dispatch.
King’s life in Kilmichael was also marked by tragedy.
His mother died when he was just 9-years-old, and his grandmother died when King was 14. Both women are buried in the cemetery of the Pinkney Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Kilmichael.
After his grandmother’s death, King went to live with his father who had remarried and settled in Lexington, Miss. He felt out of place though and eventually “ran away,” riding his bicycle the 60 miles back to Kilmichael.
He lived and worked on the family farm of Flake Cartledge, a white man who King admired for his generosity and lack of prejudice. Cartledge also helped King to buy his first real guitar, a red Stella, which he began playing with the Elk Horn Jubliee Singers.
In 1943, King followed Birkett Davis to the Indianola area, where he joined another gospel group and eventually began playing blues.
Over the years, King’s music has taken him all across the world, but he still finds the time to return home, to his roots.
“B.B. is truly a legend and a state treasure,” Alex Thomas said.
Allan Hammons, a close friend of King’s, who was instrumental in the development of the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, was also at Tuesday’s unveiling and said: “I don’t think there has been, or ever will be, another guitarist with as much influence as B.B. King. His inimitable style is known to musicians all over the world and he’s earned the title, “King of the Blues.”
B.B. King is truly a national treasure, and perhaps the greatest ambassador Mississippi will ever have,” Hammons continued. “This Kilmichael marker is very special. It really sets the stage for the rest of B.B. King’s life. If one ever wonders why B.B. is the man he is, you only have to understand Kilmichael and its influences. It’s truly a story for the ages.”