Hundreds of people filled a church in the Mississippi Delta for the funeral Saturday of B.B. King, who rose from sharecropper in the area’s flat cotton fields to worldwide fame as a blues singer and guitarist who influenced generations of entertainers.
King was 89 when he died May 14 in Las Vegas. At his request, his body was returned to his native Mississippi for a final homecoming.
Amid rain, about 500 people filled the sanctuary of Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church, a red brick structure that sits in a field off of B.B. King Road in Indianola. More than 200 people who couldn’t get into the sanctuary watched a live broadcast of the funeral in the church’s fellowship hall, many waving hand-held fans with a black-and-white photo of a smiling King hugging his black electric guitar, Lucille.
At the beginning of the service, family members filed past King’s open casket, which had an image of Lucille embroidered on the padded white cloth inside the lid. Later, the casket was closed and covered with a large arrangement of red roses.
The Rev. Herron Wilson, who delivered the eulogy, said King proved that people can triumph over difficult circumstances.
“Hands that once picked cotton would someday pick guitar strings on a national and international stage. Amazing,” Wilson said.
Country singer Marty Stuart said King created a musical legacy for the home state they share.
“As a fellow Mississippian, I’m so proud to stand in his shadow as I walk across the world,” Stuart said.
On the way into the church, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant recalled spending time with King in the bluesman’s tour bus before a concert last year in Indianola. Bryant said King was proud of being from Mississippi.
Noting the thousands of people who came to Indianola for the public viewing Friday and funeral Saturday, Bryant said: “He would have loved to know that one more time he’s helping the Mississippi Delta.”
Tony Coleman, King’s drummer for 37 years, said King never referred to himself as King of the Blues, an honorary title others used.
“He felt like the blues was the king, and it was his responsibility to keep it king,” Coleman said as he entered the church.
A children’s choir based at the B.B. King Museum clapped as they sang gospel songs, including one with the chorus: “Let’s all get together, bring peace to the world.”
President Barack Obama sent a letter to be read aloud by Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, a friend of King.
“The blues has lost its king and American has lost a legend,” Obama said. “No one worked harder than B.B. No one did more to spread the gospel of the blues. He gets stuck in your head, he gets you moving, he gets you doing the things you probably shouldn’t do — but will always be glad you did.
“B.B. may be gone but that thrill will be with us forever. And there’s going to be one killer blues session in heaven tonight,” Obama said.
More than 4,000 people viewed his open casket Friday at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola.
One of his sons, Willie King of Chicago, said his father taught him to respond with love when others are angry.
“For a man coming out of the cotton field unlearned and you take his music and draw four corners of the world together — that is amazing,” Willie King said Friday at the museum, where his father will be buried.
King’s public viewing Friday was almost like a state funeral, with Mississippi Highway Patrol officers in dress uniform standing at each end of the casket. Two of his black electric guitars stood among sprays of flowers.
Blues guitarist Buddy Guy, 78, said he always intended to tour the B.B. King Museum while its namesake, his longtime friend, was still living.
“His left hand was a special effect,” Guy said, describing King’s talent for bending strings to make the guitar sing.
“These young people playing, you punch a button and you get a vibration,” Guy said. “He didn’t need that. He invented that.”