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33 Years Ago, B.B. King told Night Flight how Lucille got her name
In 1949, B.B. King rescued his $30 Gibson L-30 acoustic from a fire at a Arkansas venue that started with two men fighting over a woman named Lucille. King named the guitar after her. Check out this classic interview from Night Flight’s vaults.
B.B. King Live im Audimax der Uni Hamburg (November 1971, photo by Heinrich Klaffs)
By the 1970s, B.B. King — who died on Thursday, May 14, 2015, at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada — had become, arguably, his genre’s most recognizable artist and its obvious post-war ambassador. He is probably best known for “The Thrill Is Gone,” which won him a Grammy (for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance), and elevated him to a status in pop music that few blues artists experienced in their careers. It was the first of 15 Grammys for King, and was later added to a selective group of singles, in 1998, when it joined the Grammy Hall of Fame, while crossing over to the pop charts, topping out at #15.
King’s emotive electricified guitar playing, on a a series of Gibson ES-355s he always named “Lucille,” continued to thrill fans throughout the decade, propelling his albums into the Top 40 album charts too, like his 1970 album Indianola Mississippi Seeds, which also featured Leon Russell (#26) and his 1971 LP Live at Cook County Jail, recorded at the Chicago penal institution (#25), and Completely Well — the album featuring “The Thrill Is Gone,” which was actually a string-laden remake of Roy Hawkins’ 1951 ballad — to #38. His nineteenth album, 1971’s B.B. King In London, an all-star effort featuring Peter Green, Dr. John and members of Spooky Tooth and Humble Pie, among others, scored #57, while he also landed albums recorded in collaboration with Bobby “Blue” Bland and the Crusaders on the charts as well.
King was born Riley B. King, in Berclair, Mississippi, and lived the same kind of humble early life that so many blues legends did, picking cotton and later, in nearby Indianola, driving a tractor; music, however, was always the main motivation to improve his life. He had started playing the guitar at age twelve, and he sang gospel, but he was drawn to blues guitar and became enamored with the genre. His earliest influence may have been pre-war guitarist Lonnie Johnson, but he delved deeper into the blues through his cousin, Bukka White, an ex-convict and blues singer who recorded for both Victor and Vocalion.
King served in the Army during WWI, but returned after the war to farming, until he totaled a tractor during an accident. This led to his fleeing with his guitar to Memphis, Tennessee, where he lived with White. He continued to develop his own playing style throughout the rest of the 40s and over the next few decades, playing almost exclusively for black audiences in the Southern “chitlin circuit,” and by 1949, he was also playing on the Memphis radio station WDIA, during a 10-minute daily show.
He began deejaying on the station too, using the name the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” later shortened to “Bee Bee” King, and then, finally, to “B.B.”, his nickname for the rest of his life.
After first recording for the Bullet imprint in Nashville, he began to focus on his songs, and eventually had his first hit, in 1952, with “3 O’Clock Blues” for the L.A.-based R&B label Modern Records. The single climbed to #1 on the national R&B charts and remained there for five weeks, and over the next eleven years, he had three more #1 R&B hits, and 28 total charting singles, many of which would become staples of his live concerts for the rest of his life.
By the early 60s, King was moving from Modern over to ABC-Paramount, signing in 1962 and having a handful of minor hits and at least one album that would represent to audiences what those who were able to see him live in concert already knew. Live At The Regal, released in 1965, was recorded at a theater on Chicago’s South Side, but it would be another few years before white audiences caught on to what his black audiences already knew.
In 1967, San Francisco promoter Bill Graham booked him to play the Fillmore ballroom with Moby Grape, and by now King had arrived. His 10-minute song “Lucille,” released on a 1968 album of the same name, told the story of the prized guitar, and also chronicled his own rise from Mississippi plantation worker to “King of the Blues.”
By 1969, he was opening the Rolling Stones’ arena gigs, and he would soon have his biggest hit with “The Thrill Is Gone” and it would not be overstating it to say that he would be at the relative peak of his powers at this point in his career, and during the 1970s there was probably no other “King” of the blues bigger than B.B. King.
His guitar “Lucille” also became quite well known during this time, and often the topic of questions from interviewers; King sometimes played a variation on Gibson’s ES-335 semi-acoustic, but the black ES-355 was his instrument of choice since 1959. In 1982, King and Gibson teamed up for a special Lucille model, removing the f-holes to limit feedback.
Although his career cooled off a bit during the early 80s, he began getting the kinds of lifetime achievement awards that usually an artist receives during the twilight of their careers, including induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in just the second year of its existence. Then, he appeared in U2’s documentary film Rattle and Hum, in 1988, and the audience grew exponentially larger.
King then segued into the world of club ownership, lending his name to the first B.B. King’s Blues Club in 1991, which quickly became a tourist destination as it was situated on the famed Beale Street locale in Memphis. A second club, at the Universal City Walk, opened in 1994, followed by a club in NYC’s Time’s Square in 200, two clubs at the Foxwood Casino in Connecticut in 2002, one in Nashville in 2003, one in Orlando, Florida, in 2007, one in West Palm Beach in 2009, anf finally, in the winter of 2009, a B.B. King’s Blues Club opened at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.
At age 75, he had his biggest success with Riding With The King, a project in which he was co-billed with guitarist Eric Clapton — it sold more than two million copies, winning the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, and peaking at #3 on the album charts. The accolades continued to come, and he continued to tour, playing dates in 90 countries and performing 100-150 dates a year he could as long as his health was stable.
King would probably still be touring if his health hadn’t started to become an issue earlier this year. Just a month ago, after news broke that he was in the hospital, he relayed a note that he expected to be back on the stage, and on the road, as soon as possible.
BB King and his guitar Lucille, Hammersmith Odeon, London (May 5, 1982, photo by David Corio)