Indianola, Miss. — Through his agile fingers, still soft despite decades of making love to the taut strings of his guitar, B.B. King becomes immersed in his music.
The high-pitched wail of the notes he coaxes out of the instrument, nicknamed Lucille, is salve to the soul of the nearly 80-year-old bluesman, who shows no signs of slowing down as he prepares to kick off a world tour this month in Holland.
It's been a good year for King, named by Rolling Stone magazine as the third-greatest guitarist of all time. He's recording a new album of duets with Elton John, Eric Clapton and Gloria Estefan, a memorabilia book bearing his name soon will be released, and he recently broke ground on the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretative Center in this small Mississippi Delta town.
Yet King, acclaimed around the world, still laments what he believes is a lack of respect for blues music in America, where radio stations mostly play hip-hop, pop and rock.
"We get treated poorly," he says. "I'm thinking about the younger ones, who are coming along today, not B.B. We've had several superstars, like the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, like the young Robert Cray, and they don't get play. They don't get exposed."
At his recent museum groundbreaking, King took a break from his fans, finding a comfortable chair to relax his hefty frame. Family and friends urged him to eat mini muffaletta sandwiches, broccoli and fruit to help control his diabetes.
King gently pushed the food aside; he wanted to talk.
He reminisced about his early years, working as a laborer on a cotton plantation in the heart of the Delta. And without a hint of bitterness, he explained how difficult life was back then for the man born Riley B. King on Sept. 16, 1925.
"I was a regular hand when I was 7. I picked cotton. I drove tractors. Children grew up not thinking that this is what they must do. We thought this was the thing to do to help your family," says King, who now lives in Nevada.
The interminably humble bluesman envisions his museum, to be located at the site of the brick cotton gin where he once worked, as a conduit for Delta youth trying to escape the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. Many in the community hold King up as the standard of success.
"In the Delta, they think he can walk on water," says Carver Randle, one of King's longtime friends.
The museum, to be finished by 2007, will be a $10 million, 18,000-square-foot edifice, showcasing the various phases of King's career with a state-of-the-art theater, a studio and artifacts. Organizers have raised about half the cost of the project through private donations, no small feat in town of about 12,000.