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B.B. King's funeral draws hundreds in Mississippi

At his request, the blues legend's body was returned to his native Mississippi for a final homecoming

Hundreds of people filled a church in the Mississippi Delta for the funeral Saturday of B.B. King, who rose from sharecropper in the area's flat cotton fields to worldwide fame as a blues singer and guitarist who influenced generations of entertainers.

King was 89 when he died May 14 in Las Vegas. At his request, his body was returned to his native Mississippi for a final homecoming.

Amid rain, about 500 people filled the sanctuary of Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church, a red brick structure that sits in a field off of B.B. King Road in Indianola. More than 200 people who couldn't get into the sanctuary watched a live broadcast of the funeral in the church's fellowship hall, many waving hand-held fans with a black-and-white photo of a smiling King hugging his black electric guitar, Lucille.

At the beginning of the service, family members filed past King's open casket, which had an image of Lucille embroidered on the padded white cloth inside the lid. Later, the casket was closed and covered with a large arrangement of red roses.

On the way into the church, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant recalled spending time with King in the bluesman's tour bus before a concert last year in Indianola. Bryant said King was proud of being from Mississippi.

Noting the thousands of people who came to Indianola for the public viewing Friday and funeral Saturday, Bryant said: "He would have loved to know that one more time he's helping the Mississippi Delta."

Tony Coleman, King's drummer for 37 years, said King never referred to himself as King of the Blues, an honorary title others used.

"He felt like the blues was the king, and it was his responsibility to keep it king," Coleman said as he entered the church.

A children's choir based at the B.B. King Museum clapped as they sang gospel songs, including one with the chorus: "Let's all get together, bring peace to the world."

President Obama sent a letter to be read aloud by Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, a friend of King.

"The blues has lost its king and America has lost a legend," Obama said. "No one worked harder than B.B. No one did more to spread the gospel of the blues. He gets stuck in your head, he gets you moving, he gets you doing the things you probably shouldn't do — but will always be glad you did.

"B.B. may be gone, but that thrill will be with us forever. And there's going to be one killer blues session in heaven tonight," Obama said.

A public viewing and invitation-only memorial service were held in Las Vegas before King's body was flown to Memphis, Tenn. for a tribute Wednesday.

Hundreds of fans flocked to the wake wearing their Sunday best, with blue balloons and B.B. T-shirts and buttons. Tim Ruiz from Baldwin Park waited patiently in line to see his hero, reading from the book “2001: A Space Odyssey.” And Larry Montano came dressed all in black, holding a bouquet of blue roses for the late King of the Blues.

Montano, 61, a retired sound technician from Palmdale, said he was the first to arrive for the viewing. He put his portable chair before the side door to the chapel at 9 a.m. He'd hit the road before dawn to get to Vegas.

Eventually, the crowd was allowed into the funeral home and Montano stood before King. The casket was surrounded by floral displays and guitars on stands. The inside of the casket was white satin, with the image of a guitar and the name “Lucille.”

Montano wept.

“I'm glad I came,” he said. “But I don't want to remember him this way. I want to remember him when I saw him play, the night I shook his hand.”

Times staff writer John Glionna (@jglionna) contributed reporting to this story.

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