Today the city of Memphis put on a tribute concert in W.C. Handy Park just off Beale Street for the late B.B. King. There was a light rain up until 11 a.m. when the concert started, then picking up later in the show with a brief downpour. The rain didn’t seem to bother the lighthearted crowd, in fact a few of them were dancing in the rain in front of the stage. I was lucky enough to get a second row seat in front of the stage, seeing how the first row was reserved for family and friends of B.B.
Before the show and whenever the rain lightened up, Lucille and one of B.B.’s amps were displayed on the front of the stage, and of course a crowd gathered in front all madly taking pictures. There was barely a hint of mourning in the crowd. Everyone was in good spirits, drinking beer and discussing old stories of B.B. and other blues artists. There was a slew of speakers including the mayor of Memphis, and my personal favorite being B.B. King’s drummer Tony Coleman. Mr. Coleman went on and told stories of when he first met King and what a great man he became of it, and even did a pretty good impression of King too. Afterwards he went back and played drums with the rest of the All-Star band and Coleman sang lead on “The Thrill is Gone”.
The very last performance was done by Bobby Rush, a long time friend of B.B. At the end of the tribute Rush came out and said a few words for King and read a verse from the bible. As the last tribute of the day Mr. Rush pulled out his harmonica and did a lone performance of “When the Saints go Marching in.” The crowd sang along and when it was over we all marched out to Beale Street and waited for the hearse to arrive.
It was emphasized throughout the concert that B.B. was a man of love and that’s how we should remember him, and that’s just how it was. In the crowd we were all friends. There was no fear or discrimination, no cruelty or selfishness, we were all there not to mourn his death but to celebrate his life. While waiting for the procession to come through someone pointed out to me that the it’s hard for a crowd to gather that large in Memphis without a riot starting. Even though I’ve been a lifelong fan of King, I’ve only lived in Memphis a few short months. It was easy to see the tragedy that struck the city and it was the only thing that could have unified the people in such a way.
Eventually the hearse came through carrying B.B.’s body following a brass band playing in the street. Once it passed, the crowds dispersed with most going home or a few sticking around for some shopping and grabbing a bite to eat. Many of the speakers and performers could be seen walking around Beale Street in the shops and restaurants, all of them happy to stop and talk about the blues. Within the hour it was clear when the event had died down, and it was time to go home.