His Pride and Joy
B.B. King (September 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015) was born as Riley B. King on a plantation in Itta Bena, a city in Leflore County Mississippi, near Indianola. He was attracted to music and by his aunt and became interested in the guitar from going to church and singing gospel music, but he was not allowed to sing the blues, because this was considered “the devil’s music”. King listened to recordings by early blues masters, including Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson on his Aunt’s Mima (or Mimy) record player. King’s mother Nora Ella died, when he was 10 and then he went live with his grandmother and he became close with Reverend Archie Fair, the brother-in-law of King’s uncle William Pullian. Reverend Archie Fair played guitar in the services and Archie’s wife and King’s aunt are sisters, so Riley was allowed to play the Reverend’s guitar and the Reverend showed him three basic chords. King was able to borrow $30 from the plantation farm boss, a white man named Flake Cartledge, so he could buy his first real guitar, a red Stella, and he ordered music lessons from the Sears, Roebuck catalog, which helped King to developed as a blues player. The first song that he learned to play on his first guitar was ‘O My Darling Clementine’.
Around 1940, King bought his first Gibson, a humble f-hole L-30, and he fixed a DeArmond pickup to it. In his youth, he played on street corners for dimes, and would sometimes play in as many as four towns a night and soon he was earning more singing and playing guitar on street corners on Saturday than he made all week on the plantation. In 1947, King left Mississippi hitchhiking to Memphis, Tennessee with only $2.50 in his pocket, and this is where he found the excitement and musical atmosphere that he dreamed of, beginning his career in juke joints and local radio.
King was one of the biggest stars of black radio, his show was so popular that he was soon offered a job as a DJ after meeting Sonny Boy Williamson who had a radio show on WDIA in West Memphis. Williamson was so impressed with King that he offered King his own radio show and a chance to play regularly at Miss Annie’s 16th Street Grill. He played records by artists such as Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra and he made a connection with musician and talent scout Ike Turner. He was told to change his name from Riley King to something catchy and for a while, he performed as Beale Street Blues Boy, then just Blues Boy King, until he finally shortened it to B.B. King.
During the ‘50s he tried out a few more Gibsons, including an ES-5, a 125, a Byrdland, and a 175. By the early ‘60s he was playing a Gibson sunburst ES-335 with a Bigsby, and, unusually, it had a Varitone switch and stereo wiring, marking it as a custom order melding elements of a 335 and 345. By 1967, B.B had shifted his affections to Gibson’s top semi-solid, the 355. King’s best records expanded what blues could be, drawing in the sounds of R&B, soul and funk.
King’s voice, and the lacerating solos that he played on the guitars that were all named “Lucille”, were born out a near-death experience that he had in the winter of 1949. In the track ‘Lucille’, off of B.B. King’s 1968 album of the same name, King plays nearly ten minutes worth of soul-stirring guitar licks while talking, telling a story about his guitar and his life, about how this instrument took him from the plantation where he made 35 cents a day picking cotton and eventually brought him fame.
Lucille’s beginnings date back to 1949, when King was in his early 20s, and he was performing at a nightclub in Twist, Arkansas, in the dead of winter. To heat the cold room, King said that, they would take something that looked like a big garbage pail, fill it half way up with kerosene, light the fuel and set it in the middle of the dance floor. However on this eventful night, a fight broke out between two men, and the pail was knocked over. It spilled on the floor, and it looked like a river of fire, and everyone started to run for the front door, including B.B. King.
The bluesman managed to make it to safety outside only to realize that he had left his beloved $30 Gibson acoustic guitar behind. He raced back inside to retrieve it even as the wooden building, started to fall down all around him. The next day, he learned that two men died in that blaze and that the fight which had set off the tragic chain of events had been over a woman who worked at the club and her name was Lucille. King decided to name his guitar Lucille, to remind himself never to do anything that foolish again.
George Harrison was given a guitar named Lucy by Eric Clapton which was previously owned by Rick Derringer, and John Sebastian and Harrison kept Lucy until his death in 2001. Eric Clapton gave his favorite Fender Stratocaster the nickname Blackie, Willie Nelson gave his Martin N-20 nylon-string classical acoustic guitar the nickname Trigger, Neil Young has been playing the same guitar for almost 50 years which is a Gibson electric guitar that was given the name Old Black, Eddie Van Halen created his own guitar and gave it the name Frankenstrat which is a portmanteau of Frankenstein, Stevie Ray Vaughan called his most beloved six-string 1963 Fender Strat his ‘First Wife’, over a ten year period beginning in 1979 Jerry Garcia’s guitar of choice was named Tiger, but none of these guitars are as famous as Lucille. King owned several Gibson guitars that evolved with time and taste. In 1980 Gibson began manufacturing the B.B. King signature “Lucille” model, a variation on the company’s combination hollow- and solid-body ES-355. Gibson’s Lucille line ensured that for the right price, everyone could have a Lucille of their own.
King released 75 hit R&B singles between 1951 and 1992. In 1984, King was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and also received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. In 1990, King was awarded the National Medal of Arts and in 1995 he received the Kennedy Center Honors. On December 15, 2006 President George W. Bush presented King with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Blues musician B.B. King released over 50 albums in his lifetime. He won 15 Grammy Awards, making him the record holder for the most won in the Blues genre.
The sound that you’re listening to
Is from my guitar that’s named Lucille
I’m very crazy about Lucille, Lucille took me from the plantation
Or you might say, brought me fame
I don’t think I could just talk enough about Lucille
Sometime when I’m blue seem like Lucille try to help me call my name
I used to sing spirituals and I thought that this
Was the thing that I wanted to do
But somehow or other When I went in the army I picked up on Lucille, and started the singing blues
Well, now when I’m paying my dues,
Maybe you don’t know what I mean when I say paying dues, I mean when things are bad with me
I can always, I can always, you know like, depend on Lucille
Sort of hard to talk to you myself
I guess I’ll let Lucille say a few words and then
You know, I doubt if you can feel it like I do
But when I think about the things that I’ve gone through,
Like, well for instance, if I have a girlfriend and she misuses me,
And I go home at night, maybe I’m lonely
Well not maybe, I am lonely, I pick up Lucille
And it bring out those funny sounds that sound good to me, you know?
Sometime I get to the place where I can’t even say nothing
Sometime I think it’s crying
You know, if I could sing pop tunes like Frank Sinatra or,
Sammy Davis Junior, I don’t think I still could do it,
‘Cause Lucille don’t wanna play nothing but the blues
And I think I’m, I think I’m pretty glad about that
‘Cause don’t nobody sing to me like Lucille
Well, I’ll put it like this, take it easy, Lucille
I like the way Sammy sings and I like the way Frank sings,
But I can get a little Frank, Sammy,
A little Ray Charles, in fact all the people with soul in this
A little Mahalia Jackson in there
One more, Lucille!
Take it easy now, ah!
You know, I imagine a lot of you wanna know,
A lot of you wanna know why I call the guitar Lucille
Lucille has practically saved my life two or three times
No kidding, it really has
I remember once I was in an automobile accident, and
When the car stopped turning over, it fell over on Lucille,
And it held it up off me, really, it held it up off me
So that’s one time it saved my life
The way, the way I came by the name of Lucille,
I was Over in Twist, Arkansas, I know you’ve never heard of that one, have you?
And one night the guys started a ball over there, you know, started brawling, you know what I mean
And the guy that was mad with his old lady,
When she fell over on this gas tank that was burning for heat,
The gas ran all over the floor
And when the gas ran all over the floor, the building
Caught on fire, and almost burned me up trying to save Lucille
Oh I, I imagine you’re still wondering why I call it Lucille
The lady that started that brawl that night was named Lucille
And that’s been Lucille ever since to me
One more now, Lucille
Sounds pretty good to me. Can I do one more?
Look out, Lucille
Sounds pretty good. I think I’ll try one more
Written for Fandango’s Friday Flashback.