Grieving fans pay respects to blues legend B.B. King in Las Vegas

The late blues legend B.B. King influenced a generation of musicians

As he waited in line to see his lost musical hero, Wan Ali wailed on his harmonica. Nicky Bone Jones worked an acoustic guitar.

And Larry Montano came dressed all in black, holding a bouquet of blue roses for the late King of the Blues.

It was a final encore for guitar legend B.B. King, a public viewing Friday for hundreds of fans to stand before his open casket and say their last goodbyes to the bluesman who, many said, changed the way they heard the music.

They showed up from around the country on a cloudy May afternoon in the desert to wait outside the Palm Mortuary a few miles west of the Strip where King once played.

For a few moments, raindrops fell — the skies, like King's trusted Gibson guitar, Lucille, gently weeping.

“I couldn't miss this. No, not this,” said Ali, 45, of Chicago, who wore a white hat and a black felt suit jacket. “You might have missed Elvis' death but not this one. As long as I'm alive, I can say that I was there to give B.B. King his send-off.”

For a while, Ali and Jones played a few impromptu blues numbers for those gathered, while Jones' mother, Linda Kerpsie, 70, sat on the concrete walk and banged on a tambourine.

Many clapped with the music. Sure, it was a sad occasion, but making music seemed the right thing to do.

By 3 p.m. the line of more than 300 mourners snaked around the corner. They leaned on canes, sat in wheelchairs, and carried blue balloons as they waited to be led in for a viewing in small groups up to the casket. Each was allowed up to 10 seconds before being motioned on.

A flat-screen TV projected King's image, and in the adjacent lobby, guests left flowers or cards. Cameras were not allowed, and security watched closely for any iPhones or small cameras that could take pictures that might land on social media.

Like loyal roadies rushing around a stage, the staff at the Palm mortuary had scrambled to ensure that King's last big public appearance came off without a hitch.

They had cleaned the chapel carpet, mapped out security, researched their duties and answered the phone calls that come from grieving music aficionados worldwide.

In two decades in the business, mortuary manager Matthew Phillips has taken part in services for state politicians, and another Palm mortuary branch in Las Vegas hosted the viewing for actor Tony Curtis.

But Phillips had never seen anything like this.

“B.B. King's death has made me realize just what a cultural icon he was to the entire nation, not just the music business,” he said. “It's an honor to play a role in his final journey home.”

King, a sharecropper's son dubbed the “King of the Blues,” died May 14 from complications associated with his long battle with Type 2 diabetes. He had lived in Las Vegas for several years before his death at age 89.

After Friday's viewing, a private family funeral was planned for Saturday at a nearby Palm chapel. King's body will then be flown to Mississippi, where burial services are planned for next week in Indianola, on the grounds of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center there.

Starting last weekend, the funeral home began receiving hundreds of telephone calls from as far away as Japan.

For fans, the thrill was gone along with the King. They came in their Sunday best, with blue balloons and B.B. T-shirts and buttons. Tim Ruiz from Baldwin Park, Calif., waited patiently in line to see his hero, reading from the book “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“I grew up with B.B. King playing in my house,” he said. “My parents had good taste.”

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 here.

“B.B. was the last great blues legend still with us,” he said. “And he was a great person.”

Montano said the stars were aligned for his trip. He called a florist late Thursday, and the place was still open, even after closing time. He planned to buy a dozen white roses and dye them blue.

But the florist called him off. “Man, we got blue roses,” the florist said. “And we're the only one in Palmdale that does.”

Wearing a brown bowler hat, Fred Kerpsie sat in a portable wheelchair, a cane in his hand, and talked about what King's music meant to his life.

“He spoke from the soul,” he said. “He's in our family to stay.”

Las Vegas resident Georgia Furnace, 72, said she and her sister used to sneak into the 54 Ballroom in Los Angeles in the 1970s to hear King play. They still listen to his music, all these years later.

“When we're on the phone, she has B.B. bumpin' on her end, and I have his music bumpin' on mine,” she said.

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.”

He wiped his eyes.

“B.B. King. I'll never forget him.”

For news from Las Vegas and the West follow @jglionna on Twitter.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

Update

6:45 p.m.: This story has been updated with more comments from fans of the late B.B. King.

4:27 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from fans mourning B.B. King.

3:51 p.m.: This story has been updated to report that the service for B.B. King has begun.

This story was originally published at 6 a.m.

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