Did the black church give BB King the Blues?


By Michal Ortner

The death of blues legend B.B. King has left many reflecting on his 89 years of life. “The King of Blues” grew up in the Mississippi Delta, where his first taste of music began in the halls of an African-American church.

“Church was not only a warm spiritual experience, it was exciting entertainment,” King once shared of his religious upbringing. “It was where I could sit next to a pretty girl and mostly it was where the music got all over my body and made me wanna jump.”

Despite all of his warm memories of church, King’s relationship with the body of believers was conflicted. He was only 4 years old when he first began singing spirituals with his mother. His father left around this time and within five years, his mother would pass away.

“If you were in the Baptist church, they didn’t want you to bring a guitar in,” he said in a 1999 conversation with the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “So I didn’t really dig the Baptist church too much.”

King’s aunt, who was only a few years older that he was, introduced him to a new style of music called the blues. He would spend his Saturdays at a store in Indianola just to hear the music he was growing to love.

“I was ashamed, man,” King told the BBC in 1972. “The people around us was very religious. I always say they were very religious, very hypocritical. Because, if they wasn’t religious, they seemed to act the part.”

Joseph Nazel, biography writer for King, wrote that “the blues, once the music became popular enough for the press to take note, became a cause of conflict and contention among those, both black and white, who saw the blues as ‘devil music’ which would somehow corrupt them all.”

“People that would request a gospel song would always be very polite to me,” King said, noticing something about the religious crowd. “And they’d say, ‘Son, you’re mighty good. Keep it up. You’re going to be great one day.’ But they never put anything in the hat.”

But when King would play blues music, the audience was more giving. Sometimes, they would give him money or a free beer.

“Now you know why I’m a blues singer,” he said.

After being drafted into the military, he never returned to religious music or the religion itself.

“I don’t know what happens after this life,” he said. “I haven’t had my mother or anybody else come back and tell me. I think hell is hell on earth. And heaven to me is a beautiful lady and enjoyment with her.”