Sid Salter – columnist 5/19/2015

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Salter: B. B. King — one of state’s greatest ambassadors

STARKVILLE – One of the things I enjoyed most about doing a few years of talk radio in the state was hearing the reaction of listeners around the state to the “bumper” music that accompanied the show on the SuperTalk Mississippi network.

My producer, the very talented Pat LeBlanc, made sure that whatever shortcomings my old show had that the music that played us on and off the air during the three-hour show would be some of the best in the business. The fact that Pat and I had similar tastes in music and that Pat liked to push the envelope between classic blues, jazz and the old standards was simply gravy.

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Pat introduced my audience to Keb Mo’ and other lesser known contemporary artists. But he also served up a dose of Delta Blues that was simply awesome – and none more memorable than the plaintive sounds of B.B. King’s version of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues.”

Smith’s song was about far more than Delta flooding, although rising waters were the premise. The lyrics are haunting and King’s version even more so:
“It rained five days, the sky has turned black as night
“Oh, it rained five days. and the sky has turned black as night
“And there’s trouble takin’ place, way down in the lowlands tonight.”

Some artists simply sang the blues. B.B. King made his audiences feel the blues, feel it down in their soul. Never was there a sadder, more empathetic voice and never were there more talented hands wringing the blues from an electric guitar he called “Lucille.”

I was fortunate to have interviewed King a few times. He was generous, well-read, intelligent and possessed of a marvelous and gentle sense of humor. To say that I was a fan was an understatement, but in my mind King spent his life as one of Mississippi’s greatest ambassadors. His talents were recognized around the globe and his music inspired millions to learn more about the birthplace of the blues in the U.S. and particularly in the Mississippi Delta.

“I woke up this mornin’, and I couldn’t get out of my front door
“I woke up this mornin’, and I couldn’t get out of my front door
“It was so much trouble, Make a poor man wonder where he wanna go”

I saw B.B. King in concert a half-dozen times – the best a 1980 concert in Fulton Chapel on the campus of Ole Miss and the worst his last performance at Mississippi State University in 2011. At the height of his abilities, there wasn’t a better blues singer in the country and not a better blues guitar player on the planet.

I also remember King’s brief foray into disco of a sort and a “jerry curl” hairstyle as part of the 1985 movie “Into The Night” with a song by the same name. King did a music video with Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer.

At my request, Pat used “Into The Night” in our “bumper” music lineup, but he did so under protest.

In the 1990s, King did a show in Forest that had Bobby “Blue” Bland as the opening act. On the bus before the show, it was clear that time and diabetes had begun to extract their toll on King’s energy, his health and his longevity. But when the lights when up and show had begun, King was again “the blues boy” and a mesmerizing talent.

By the time he performed at MSU in 2011, King’s health had deteriorated to the point that he was a shell of himself – with occasional flashes of brilliance interspersed in the growing fog of declining memory.

Watching him that night, I thought about his version of “Backwater Blues” that we used to accompany my old radio show:

“I climbed up on the high lonely hill, oh, I climbed up on the high old lonely hill
“And I looked down at the house, baby, where I used to live.”

“Backwater blues caused me to pack my things and go
“The backwater blues caused me to pack my things and go
“‘Cause my house fell down, and I can’t live there no more.”

Rest in peace, Riley B. King. The world will never again see or hear the likes of you. But the world – and especially the Mississippi Delta you never really left – will long remember the house where you used to live.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at