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MUHAMMAD: Indianola, Miss., Welcomes Home B.B. King

Askia Muhammad | 5/28/2014, 3 p.m.
This place is the biggest small country town, of which most Americans probably have never heard.
Askia Muhammad

INDIANOLA, Miss. — This place is the biggest small country town, of which most Americans probably have never heard.

Indianola is the seat of Sunflower County in the flat, sunny, agricultural region known as The Delta. Indianola is the hometown of the immortal blues legend B.B. King. It also happens to be my hometown, and the hometown of a former New York Times food critic.

But as the county seat, Indianola’s name and location were seared into the national consciousness by the one and only voting rights champion, Fannie Lou Hamer, co-founder in 1963, of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a voter registration and civil rights movement which changed the face of U.S. politics!

Indianola has three traffic signals in town, all along the main drag – U.S. Highway 82 – which leads 30 miles to the west to sprawling Greenville, a major trading center on the, “Big Muddy,” the Mississippi River; and 30 miles to the east to Greenwood, “The Cotton Capital of the World.”

But this week, Indianola is transformed by the 34th annual – and final – homecoming of 88-year-old native son, Riley “Blues Boy” King.

Driving north into town on U.S. Highway 49, past Inverness, you can see one. Driving east on Highway 82 past Leland, you can see one. Driving south on route 49 past Fannie Lou Hamer’s hometown, Ruleville, there’s another one. And driving west past Itta Bena, there’s one there too. What is it? “It” is a billboard with an iconic photo of B.B. plucking that guitar he named, “Lucille,” with the words: “The Thrill is Here,” a little word play on his mega-hit song “The Thrill is Gone.”

I feel a special connection to B.B. King. After he began his musical “career” singing and playing his guitar at the corner of Church Street and Second Street, he migrated to the legendary Club Ebony (which B.B. now owns), the Jook Joint at Mill Street and Hanna Avenue that became a principal stop in the Deep South for all the major Black entertainers of the 1950s.

At the Club Ebony, B.B. met and married Sue Carroll Hall, the daughter of Club manager Ruby Edwards. By this time I was big enough to walk along Hanna Avenue with my Uncle F.C. Canteberry – my mouth full of Juicy Fruit gum – up to the Club, where I could peek in the window, and see the grand jukebox with its multicolored streams of bubbles, and notice one other salient fact: Miss Ruby Edwards appeared in my young mind (then growing up in Los Angeles, California) to be a White lady. Nothing special in L.A., but the subject of potential scandal in Mississippi where Black men could get beaten for committing “eyeball rape” – that is looking lasciviously at a White woman.

So the Club Ebony and B.B. King are virtually in my DNA, that is, my grandmother’s house was one block from the Club, and whenever I heard B.B. King’s name mentioned with songs on the Hit Parade, I always thought of him as a neighbor.

I was here in 2008 when B.B. opened the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. And I’ve come for his homecomings ever since. Sometimes at the time of his birthday in mid-September, once around the time of the July 4 holiday, now this year for the Memorial Day weekend.

We know this is the final homecoming, because he has said it’s to be his last homecoming celebration here in Indianola, and also, very importantly because his performance skills have deteriorated considerably. His band is still as tight as Dick Tracy’s hatband, but, sometimes the star forgets, or does not complete the lyrics to his songs, so he’s not coming back to the Delta to celebrate again.

So, bye, bye B.B. We love you. We love your music. Enjoy your retirement, my hometown neighbor.