Remembering B.B. King Through the Guitars He Called Lucille

August 5th, 2015

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This is an excerpt from the all-new SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Cheech Marin’s Blazing Chicano guitars art project, Paul Weller, Guitar Salon International, the Paul Reed Smith Dragon models, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

FAREWELL TO THE KING: Remembering the life of B.B. King through his many loves—the guitars he called Lucille.

By Mac Randall

The story of B.B. King’s Lucille has been told and retold so many times that it has taken on the contours of myth. December 1949. A makeshift nightclub in Twist, Arkansas, packed with dancers and heated by a kerosene fire set inside a metal garbage barrel. Singer and guitarist Riley King, 24 years old and just starting to go by the stage name B.B., is providing the entertainment: blues that’s both smooth and lowdown, boldly delivered in the manner of masters like T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton. As the music gets louder, a fistfight breaks out between two men. Down goes the barrel of kerosene; up in flames goes the room. In terror for their lives, everyone rushes to the door, including King. But once he’s out of the club, he realizes he’s forgotten something: the black Gibson L-30 archtop that he’d bought not long before for the princely sum of $30 and fitted with a DeArmond pickup. His only guitar.

Even if you don’t already know the rest, you can probably guess. King dashes into the burning building, dodges a falling roof beam, grabs the L-30, and darts back out as a wall collapses behind him. His legs are singed, but the instrument cradled in his arms is blemish-free. A few minutes later, he learns that the fistfight was over a woman, called Lucille. On the spur of the moment, he decides to give his guitar the same name.

Lucille left King’s grasp again before long, spirited off by an unknown thief and never recovered. Saddened but undaunted, he named his next guitar Lucille too. And the next, and the next, and the next—a whole chain of Lucilles, more than a dozen through a career that spanned 65 more years, each one helping to etch B.B. King’s name in history as a blues titan and one of the most commanding musicians ever to pick up a six-string. His death this past May 14 at age 89 brought that lengthy career to an end. But the songs his Lucilles sang will surely continue to be heard for as long as people care about music.

In his 1996 autobiography Blues All Around Me, written with David Ritz, King said that he named his L-30 Lucille “to remind me never to do anything that foolish again.” Presumably, what he meant for readers to think of as foolish was running into a burning building to save a guitar. But the remark seems a little tossed off. One senses that it’s not the whole story, that for King the truly foolish thing may have been leaving the guitar in the burning building in the first place. A few lines later, King confesses of Lucille that “I liked seeing her as someone worth fighting or even dying for.” This feels closer to the heart of the matter, for King was devoted to the guitar, not just on that cold December night in Arkansas but throughout his life.

That blood-kin relationship with the instrument began even before King owned a guitar, but it intensified in 1937 when he purchased his first acoustic: a cherry-red short-scale Stella, built during the brand’s final years as part of the Oscar Schmidt Company. King was 12, and for the past two years he’d been living on his own in a sharecropper’s cabin on a plantation in Kilmichael, Mississippi, following the deaths in swift succession of his mother and grandmother. The guitar kept him occupied during his off hours, bringing him some small measure of consolation for his great losses. And being able to afford a guitar (the Stella cost $15, not a small amount in the Depression-era South) was proof of his early self-sufficiency.

Sadly, in what would become a recurring theme in King’s life, the red Stella was stolen out of King’s cabin about a year after he bought it. He eventually replaced it with another acoustic featuring what appears to be an unorthodox figure-eight–shaped resonator cover, which he used while playing with the Famous St. John Gospel Singers in the early Forties. This guitar was possibly another Stella, but accounts conflict on that point, and the one surviving photo of the group as well as a solo photo of King from that period with the same guitar are inconclusive.

In 1948, King moved to Memphis and got a regular show on the pioneering new radio station WDIA, which, although owned by two white men, was the first station in America specifically programmed for a black audience. He also began to play around the Memphis area as a solo act. This was when his first Lucille, the L-30, entered the picture. Following its theft, he picked up Lucille number two, which was another Gibson archtop: a late-Forties ES-125 with sunburst finish, single P-90 pickup, dot fingerboard inlays, and gold volume and tone controls on the body. You can see King with this guitar in several early Fifties photos taken at the WDIA studio, and you can hear it on some of his earliest recordings, including the cover of Lowell Fulson’s “Three O’Clock Blues” that he cut in September of 1951. Released three months later as a single, it became his first hit, staying at Number One on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart for five weeks.

The success of “Three O’Clock Blues” widened King’s touring range substantially. For the first time, he was playing gigs in the North. And that’s where the ES-125 was stolen, from the trunk of his Oldsmobile while it was parked on a Brooklyn street. “I thought she’d be safe there,” King cracked in Blues All Around Me. “Goes to show how much I knew about Brooklyn.” It was on to the next Lucille, an early Fifties ES-5 with a natural blonde finish. This sumptuous single-cutaway jazz box was Gibson’s only three-pickup guitar at the time, with separate volume knobs for each pickup. Buying such an ax was a sure sign that King was moving up in the world…

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This is an excerpt from the all-new SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Cheech Marin’s Blazing Chicano guitars art project, Paul Weller, Guitar Salon International, the Paul Reed Smith Dragon models, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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