The greatest blues musician of all time has left us, in body only, as B.B.King passed away last night in his sleep at the age of 89.
Growing up, I had a cat that was named after B.B.King’s guitar.
After all his guitars, actually—they were all named Lucille—and true to his iconic, legendary nature, the tale of Lucille’s origin is an epic one.
In 1949, Mr.King was playing at show in Twist, Arkansas when a fight broke out between two spirited men. They overturned a kerosene heater and set the building ablaze. Along with the audience, Mr.King fled the building—but ran back to rescue his thirty dollar acoustic guitar. As he was trying to escape with his beloved guitar, he narrowly missed being caught in flames as the building collapsed around him. Upon learning that two men had died within the building and that the fight originated over a woman named Lucille, King christened his guitar, and every guitar he owned after, Lucille, “to remind me never to do a thing like that again.”
Today, Lucille is easily recognized as a black and gold Gibson ES-355–style guitar, but the original Lucille was an inexpensive, small-bodied Gibson L-30 archtop. Lucille was as much a part of B.B.King’s music as his voice itself, as he said “The minute I stop singing orally,” he said, “I start to sing by playing Lucille.”
My parents went to see B.B.King every time he came to town, and I grew up listening to his heart-grasping songs of pain and love, of redemption and survival. B.B. stood for Blues Boy, a name he took on in the 1940’s. And “Blues Boy” he was, over the years combining blues, jazz, R&B, swing and jump to create a sound distinctly his own. He is credited with influencing many of our music greats, including Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton.
In 1956, B.B. and his band played an astonishing 342 one-night stands. As a youth, he was known to play in up to four cities in a single night. And he was only getting started. Nothing about King’s music career was ordinary, and it stands to reason that his greatest hit of all time, The Thrill is Gone, remains a beloved favourite. A crossover hit when it was released in 1970, it was credited with introducing him to a new young white audience.
While his two marriages ended, King’s true love, Lucille, was by his side and played with passion until his death.
I can’t think of a better tribute to this incredible music-magician, a man who truly found exactly what he loved and pursued it for a lifetime, than to turn his music on and up today and let his voice carry us away.
Author: Keeley Milne
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
Photo: Youtube screenshot