Riley B. King received an early birthday present from his hometown of Indianola, Mississippi, this weekend: the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a permanent home for artifacts from the blues legend's life and career. B.B. King, who turns 83 tomorrow, tells Rolling Stone the project is "beyond my wildest imagination."
Though he missed Saturday's late-morning ribbon cutting ceremony ("I was in dream heaven," he later explains), Indianola celebrated amidst the angry winds of Hurricane Ike. Locals served up catfish, barbeque, Kool-Aid, pickles and sweet tea while the Delta State University and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff marching bands kicked off the festivities.
Inside the $14.2 million, 20,000 square-foot museum, the troubles and triumphs of King's extraordinary life offer a profound look through American history. Partly housed in a restored brick cotton gin where B.B. worked as a teenager, the facility is filled with murals, maps, photographs, films and personal and historical relics — footing from the sandstone shed where he worked for a sharecropper tending to mules and hogs, an old muffler from his tractor-driving days. There's a late-'30 Western Flyer bicycle like the one he once rode for 60 miles in search of his family, as well as King's army card, record contracts, notebook pages, stage outfits, Grammy awards, backstage passes, honorary degrees, records and guitars galore. "It was never B.B.'s idea to build a museum or monument to himself — he had to be convinced," says the museum's executive director, Connie Gibbons. "It was conceived and initiated by the people of this community."
Down the block from the museum, on the corner of Second and Church, King's handprints are preserved in the sidewalk where he used to sing for change on Saturday nights, before he headed off to Memphis with a guitar and a dream. A few blocks further on Hanna Street sits Club Ebony, the legendary juke joint the guitarist bought earlier this year. Before taking the stage with his band for a three-hour-plus performance, during which B.B. charmed the crowd and told stories like he was relaxing in his living room, King sat in the back of his bus in a bowtie, gracious and humble, happy to be home. "I've played 90 different countries around the world but I'm always eager to come home," he says. "I've been having a birthday every day since I came here! I've been eating it up," he adds with a warm chuckle. "Every day has been my birthday and I've been enjoying it."