When B.B. King stepped on stage, audiences were always mesmerized by the depth of the music he was able to create as a guitar soloist. But for him, it was never a solo act since he was always with Lucille, the name he gave to his guitar back in 1949.
With 15 Grammy wins — his first in 1969 and final in 2008, King was the most influential blues guitarist of a generation. The musician, who died while in hospice care in 2015 at the age of 89, used numerous guitars throughout his career, most of them being a Gibson semi-hollow body ES-355 — but no matter how they differed, he gave them the loving nickname that stemmed from a near-death incident in his 20s while playing at a venue in Twist, Arkansas.
King ran into a deadly fire to save his guitar
Born September 16, 1925, as Riley B. King, he earned his famous moniker in his early days, working as a disc jockey in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was called the “Beale Street Blues Boy”— eventually shortened to B.B.
The year that he made his first record was the same year he named Lucille at a Twist nightclub. “When we didn't have any other place to play, we were always welcome to play there,” he told record executive and folklorist Joe Smith in an interview later aired on NPR. “Well, it used to get quite cold in Twist, and they used to take something looking like a big garbage pail and set it in the middle of the floor, half-fill it with kerosene. They would light that fuel, and that's what we used for heat.”
An open fire in the middle of a lively dance floor in wooden building seemed like a recipe for disaster, but King says people respected it, grateful for the heat that it brought. But one night that winter, the worst possible scenario happened: The container was knocked over and the kerosene spilled, causing the fire to spread quickly.
“It was already burning, so when it spilled, it looked like a river of fire, and everybody ran for the front door, including yours truly,” King continued. “But when I got on the outside, then I realized that I'd left my guitar inside. I went back for it. The building was a wooden building, and it was burning so fast when I got my guitar, it started to collapse around me.”
At the time, his guitar was a small-bodied Gibson L-30 archtop — and he learned the next morning that his risky move to save it could have been a disaster since two people died in the fire. And he also learned that the reason the container had been knocked over was that a fight broke out over a woman.
“I never did meet the lady, but I learned that her name was Lucille,” King explained. “So I named my guitar Lucille and reminded me not to do a thing like that again... I almost lost my life trying to save the guitar.”
B.B. King's Life in Photos
After the fire, King named all his guitars 'Lucille'
King didn’t just call that first guitar Lucille, he continued to call all of his guitars by the name of the woman he never met throughout his illustrious career.
The “ES” in his choice model of Gibson guitar stands for “Electric Spanish.” He started with the ES-335 and worked his way up to the ES-355 until he collaborated directly with Gibson on a custom edition, officially named “Lucille.” Known for stuffing rags into Lucille to control the amount of feedback, the signature models got rid of the f-holes that were the cause of the issue.
Throughout his time more iterations of “Lucille” guitars came to fruition, like the “Super Lucille” and a version just for King’s 80th birthday, which he played from 2005 until 2009 — when it was stolen.
A few months later, Las Vegas pawn shop guitar trader Eric Dahl called up Gibson because of an unusual “Prototype 1” stamp on a guitar he came across — and he learned that it was King’s exact special edition. “The whole thing was covered in sweat. The strings were nasty,” Dahl told Gibson, according to Rolling Stone.
The guitar is expected to be worth between $80,000 and $100,000 when it goes up for auction in September 2019 by Beverly Hills’ Julien’s Auctions.
He wrote a 10-minute song about his love for Lucille
King reinforced the importance of the Lucille name to him in another way too — by naming his 1968 nine-song 15th album simply Lucille, along with a 10-minute-and-16-second title track by the name.
The lyrics recount the story of how he “met” Lucille — in essence also capturing his life story — starting with the words, “The sound that you’re listening to is from guitar that’s named Lucille / I’m very crazy about Lucille / Lucille took me from the plantation or you might say brought me fame.” Born the son of a sharecropper in Indianola, Mississippi, the words show his appreciation for the life journey that music brought him.
He also goes on to explain how “Lucille practically saved my life two or three times,” recounting both the nightclub incident as well as a car accident, where the automobile flipped and Lucille held up the vehicle, sparing his life.
While the world looks to King as one of music’s greatest of all time, his eyes were always focused on the instrument that allowed him to pave such an essential place in blues history. As he says in the song, “I don't think I could just talk enough about Lucille / Sometimes, when I'm blue, seems like Lucille tries to help me call my name... When things are bad with me, I can always… depend on Lucille.”