Marilyn and Tommy Burress knew when they heard blues legend B.B. King had died that they had to pay their final respects.
“My father played with B.B. back in the early days,” said Tommy Burress, adding that his dad was a guitarist known as Willie B in juke joints in the 1930s.
The couple, from Milwaukee, was in Las Vegas for Tommy Burress’ 72nd birthday when they joined hundreds of mourners and music fans on Friday for a public viewing of the King of the Blues.
“It’s inspiring to see how many lives he touched,” Tommy Burress, a retired auto worker, said afterward, “how many people loved his music and loved his attitude – friendliness, friendship and love of the people.”
More than 350 people were already lined up when doors opened to see B.B. King one last time.
First in line was Larry Montano, 61, who drove from Palmdale, California, to stake his spot more than five hours earlier.
“B.B. King has been an inspiration and blues idol to me for many years,” said Montano, who recalled shaking King’s hand after a performance in the 1980s at the Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles.
He said his favorite songs are “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Why I Sing the Blues.”
“He tells a wonderful story and it’s got a great blues feel,” Montano said.
“Sweet Little Angel” was among King’s hits that played softly in the chapel where he lay in an open casket flanked by stands of flowers and two of his characteristic guitars, always named Lucille.
Funeral director Matt Phillips said 900 guest cards were handed to visitors as they entered.
King’s daughter Rita Washington greeted fans outside when she arrived.
“Dad is just loving this,” she said. “This is part of his homecoming.”
The viewing began a weeklong series of memorials for King, who died May 14 in Las Vegas at 89. A musical tribute at a rock `n’ roll venue on the Las Vegas Strip was planned Friday night, and a Saturday memorial at a downtown Palm Mortuary chapel.
In King’s Mississippi hometown, Indianola, hundreds of people are expected to attend the B.B. King Homecoming Festival on Sunday, a free gathering he started 35 years ago.
A procession next Wednesday on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, will begin his final road trip back to Indianola for burial May 30.
In Las Vegas, several of King’s adult children are embroiled with his business agent in a spat over his care and estate before he died.
Daughters Karen Williams and Patty King accuse King’s longtime power-of-attorney, LaVerne Toney, of keeping them from seeing their father for a week after he died – and of preventing them from taking photos of him in his casket.
The five family members refer to themselves as a family board. B.B. King is survived by 11 of his 15 children.
“We’re his children,” Patty King said after a private family viewing of King’s body on Thursday. “We’re going to fight with every breath in our body.”
Toney, who worked for King for 39 years, is named in his will as executor of his estate. A King daughter, Riletta Mitchell, was second in line, but she died last September.
Toney said she’s doing what B.B. King said he wanted.
“They want to do what they want to do, which is take over, I guess,” Toney said of the family group. “But that wasn’t Mr. King’s wishes. Mr. King would be appalled.”
B.B. King’s will, dated Jan. 18, 2007, and filed Wednesday under his birth name, Riley B. King, appoints Toney to handle his affairs.
Toney has banned photographs of any kind during the family and public viewings and Saturday memorial.
King’s eldest daughter, Shirley King, booked a Las Vegas Strip venue for what she said will be a free musical tribute event starting an hour after the public viewing ends.
“I don’t want to be part of the argument over his life,” said Shirley King, who lives in Chicago and performs as Daughter of the Blues. “When everybody gets through being sad about him leaving, I want them to come out and let the good times roll and be happy about his life.