Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 556 from November 30, 1998. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
Riley B. King, a son of the Mississippi Delta and by everyone’s admission but his own the King of the Blues, stands by a two-lane country road. He looks across the cotton fields he used to work, toward the spot where his tin-roof frame house once stood. He lived there on and off with his (long since ex-) wife from the time he was eighteen to his twenty-fourth year. Today he came out here at dusk to have some photographs taken, but he has been asked to remember an episode in his life, and he stands laughing almost painfully and trying to shut himself up.
“Ah,” he says, “my first lady happened when I was in Kilmichael [a town sixty miles east, in the Mississippi hills], a lady that used to, um, make love for hire. She charged three dollars — no, five dollars — to go to bed with her. But the guys had been tellin’ me about her, so I’d worked hard for about two months trying to save me five dollars to go to bed with this lady. Well — this is funny, I shouldn’t tell this — I went to town that day, and I had to go ‘cross the track, as we called it, to see this lady. She was kind of a heavy lady. So she was setting on a couch eating peanuts.”
King was thirteen years old, “very slim and scrawny,” the lady in her twenties. He continues: “I stood at the door man and she’s sittin with one of those kind of dresses lie between the thighs. And she had big thighs, looked real good. She’s still eating peanuts, and she says, ‘Whatchou want?’ And when she said that, all the heart went out, in other words, my little feelings and everything about sex vanished. Yeah. But she started to talk to me, and she said, ‘Did you come to see me?’ and I said, ‘Yes’m.’ “
Now he laughs in embarrassment at the memory, pausing as a hoarse, old Pontiac thrums deliberately around the curve. “She said. ‘Well, you got the money?’ and I said, ‘Yes’m,’ and she said. ‘Ya don’t have to say, “Yes’m.” and I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ and she said, ‘You don’t have to say that’. Then she started to take her clothes off right there on the couch. I ain’t never seen this before, you know? So I went over there, boy, and I guess the very moment I touched her, I was over, and I was so ashamed I never did it again.”
This statement needs some amplification. Reliable information puts King’s count of children (all out of wedlock) at eight, his grandchildren at twenty-seven. “Don’t misunderstand me,” he says, “I have nothing against sex at all. It was a long time before I was as active as some people may think. Yes, I have eight kids, and all of them don’t have the same mothers, but it wasn’t just like an overnight affair. Each one of those ladies I spent much time with.”
Massive yet graceful behind the wheel of a rented T-bird, B.B. King has the window open (the air conditioning spilling out, a small touch of profligacy) and his arm propped on the door as he drives through the back alleys of Indianola. He winds his way out of the black district into the wider, leafier streets of a section near the municipal park. “Indianola ain’t no big place,” he had said earlier, commencing a set of directions, but he recalls a time when the town’s 10,000 citizens were divided along racial lines. “This city,” he says, “was the beginning of… The White Citizens Council started here. And so everybody in this city is not friendly.” He ponders what he has said a minute — this is the man of whom T-Bone Walker said, “B.B. never finds a bad word to say” — and amends his thought only slightly: “I don’t know about now, but at that time they wasn’t.”