At the age of 83, B.B. King is having a pretty good year, even by his standards.
In August, he released his latest album, One Kind Favor, featuring songs by Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and John Lee Hooker. In October, he received the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Civil Rights Museum. And millions of television viewers know him as a spokesman for diabetes. September also saw the opening of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Mississippi, a little more than two hours south of Memphis.
With the cotton harvest under way, November is the ideal month for a Delta road trip. From Memphis, take U.S. Highway 61 south through Tunica to Clarksdale, then highways 49 and 49 W to Indianola. Along the way, you can stop at the Tunica Museum, Hopson's Plantation in Clarksdale, and the old train depot in Tutwiler, where W.C. Handy first heard the sound he called the blues in 1903.
Cotton, casinos, and catfish farming are the main industries in this part of the Delta. That and convicts. Two of the biggest employers are the Tallahatchee County Jail, with its double row of razor-wire fences and vertical slits like fangs for windows, and its neighbor, 18,000-acre Parchman State Prison and farm, home to 4,500 inmates.
B.B. King made this trip more than a few times. Indianola claims him, but he was born a few miles away in Berclair and moved to Itta Bena before getting a job in Indianola as a tractor driver on a plantation. Married at the age of 17, he played guitar in churches and juke joints and on street corners for small change. After damaging a tractor in a minor accident, he decided to leave town in 1946.
"I'm leaving come hell or high water," he vowed. "I'm going to Memphis."
He hitchhiked to the big city but went back to Mississippi shortly after to settle his debts. He returned to Memphis on a Greyhound bus in 1948, and within a year, he found his way to Beale Street and WDIA, where Riley B. King became "the Blues Boy," soon shortened to B.B. King, the pitchman for Peptikon, an alcohol-spiked "medicinal" tonic. He made his first single record in 1949 and his first hit, "3 O'Clock Blues," at a YMCA in South Memphis in 1952.
In taped interviews at the museum, he searches for his birthplace and reminisces about Beale Street in the 1940s and '50s. He talks about Memphians Rufus Thomas, club owner Sunbeam Mitchell, deejay Nat D. Williams, his business manager Polly Walker, bus driver Cato Walker, and his cousin Booker T. Washington "Bukka" White, who advised him to "always dress like you're going to the bank to borrow money." Then as now, if B.B. King was performing, he was wearing a jacket and tie.
The museum has an archive of rare photographs and film of the chitlin circuit, the Southern music backwaters where King and his band played as many as 340 dates a year. They toured in a bus called Big Red. One year, a bad wreck nearly killed them all, destroyed the bus, and left King with $1 million in debts at a time when he was making $500 to $650 a night. Determined to improve himself, he took correspondence courses while on the road. And he got around. His first marriage ended in 1952, his second in 1966. He fathered 15 children in all.
His international popularity surged in mid-career after he was "discovered" by the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, who gives a moving video tribute at the museum. For the last 40 years, King has returned to Indianola each year to give a concert in a park near the museum.
"We raised more than $1 million for the museum right in this little town," says tour guide Janice Galloway, 52, who remembers picking cotton nearby as a little girl.
The Delta needs its favorite son and the tourists his name attracts. For those partial to back roads, the museum and the trip are worth it.