Friday, August 13, 2010

The Tale of a Legend

My Great Grandaddy bought B.B. King his first guitar.

That statement sums up one of my family’s most well-known stories that has been shared and passed on for generations with so much pride.

Let me start at the beginning…

Riley (B.B.) King lived in Kilmichael, MS, as a young boy with his mother, Nora Ella King, and grandmother, Elnora Farr. His mother died, and a year later his grandmother passed away. Riley went to live with his father, Albert King, in Lexington, MS, but he didn’t like living with his father. In 1942, at the age of 16, Riley rode his bike 50 or so miles back to Kilmichael. He was planning on staying with his family but all of his relatives had already moved back to the Delta.

A relative of Riley’s, John Farr, asked my great grandfather, Flake Cartledge, if Riley could stay with him. Grandaddy Flake picked up Riley and brought him home to Cartledge Farms. He moved into a small one room cabin that John and Lessie Farr had just moved out of. Grandaddy Flake took care of Riley; he bought him new clothes and gave him some work on the farm. Riley ate his meals at the Cartledge’s table.

A local young man named Denzil Tidwell had a guitar for sale. Riley asked Mr. Flake if he would buy the guitar for him and let Riley work to pay the money back. Grandaddy Flake agreed and paid the $15 to buy Riley his first guitar. Before that Riley had put nails and strings in the wall of his cabin and would play them like a guitar. A local minister, Archie Farr, helped Riley start to learn the chords, but he really more or less taught himself to play. This was the humble beginnings of the King of Blues, B.B.King.

Wayne Cartledge

My grandfather, Wayne Cartledge, was 9 at the time Riley came to live at the Cartledge Farm. I don’t know that you’d call them “friends” as there was a 7 year age difference, but my grandfather followed along behind Riley as any younger boy would do. Riley was the one who taught my grandfather, Wayne, how to ride a bicycle. They remained friends for life. Every time Riley was in town, he contacted my grandfather. The relationship was something that my grandfather was so proud of. He would always talk about B.B. and force us grandchildren to listen to B.B.’s blues music. Looking back, I can appreciate it, although I must say that at the time I often plugged my ears.  Too young to understand good blues I suppose.

Papaw showing the documentary crew around the farm
Photo Credit Suzi Altman

Several years ago now, BBC sent a crew from England and author Charles Sawyer also came to the Cartledge Farm to gather information for a documentary and book on B.B. King.  My grandfather loved entertaining the documentary crews and driving them around our family’s property showing them the spot where B.B. lived. "You can still drink from the creek B.B. drank from when he worked here as a young boy."

My grandfather, Wayne Cartledge, died suddenly in December 2006. One of the most meaningful things we received was a huge bouquet of flowers from B.B. himself. He was out of the country at the time, so he was unable to attend the funeral, but his gift meant so much to my family. My grandfather would have LOVED it. We placed them right beside the casket.

Photo Credit Suzi Altman

The B.B. King museum recently opened in Indianola, and my family received a special invitation to attend the pre-opening ceremonies. The picture taken above was taken when they were filming a documentary that is in use at the B.B. King museum. One of the exhibits are donated items and artifacts from the Cartledge family and a video interview with my grandfather. Since he’s no longer here, it’s my job to carry on the family story of how my Great Grandaddy Flake bought B.B. his first guitar.

*Some details paraphrased from Charles Sawyer’s The Arrival of B.B.King. Other details obtained by oral interviews of Jocleta Cain Cartledge and Marshall F. Cartledge, II.


  1. Good job Morgan. Almost brought tears to my eyes. I am so glad you kids were able to hear the story from Papaw himself. We should be proud that Granddaddy Flake was so kind as to help B.B. start " The Birth of the Blues."
    Aunt T.

  2. That's so neat. What an awesome family story to be able to carry on!