By Stephen Wilt
“The sound that you’re listening to is from my guitar, her name is Lucille.” – B.B. King
It was a thirty-dollar Gibson, small-bodied L-30 archtop that nearly killed the bluesmen long before launching his career as the most inseparable duo in music history.
There have been quite a few famous guitars that made it through history. Willie Nelson has “Trigger,” Clapton has “Blackie,” Prince had “Cloud.” But there’s one guitar that came before them all, B.B. King’s “Lucille.”
2019 marks not only the 94th birthday of the legendary performer, but the 70th birthday of his beloved guitar. Although two marriages, the only lady to ever serve the entire life of the bluesmen was his guitar, “Lucille.” Born out of a fight and flames, King’s single-note styled guitar brought to life classics such as, “Three o’clock Blues” “The Thrill Is Gone” and went on to inspire a generation of future blues players. King often let Lucille speak for him, taking place of actual lyrics. “The minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing playing Lucille,” King told Rolling Stone Magazine on his half-century love affair with his guitar.
Although marketed as to this day, what once was the original Lucille hasn’t seen the stage in decades. What separates Lucille from Willie Nelson picking up his early 40’s N-20 Martin before each show, or Clapton his favorite black Strat, Lucille has been named to many guitars King has acquired over the years. The origin, however, is a story unlike no other that helped launch King’s career and create a sound above all others.
Lucille was born out of a dive bar in the dead of winter in Twist, Arkansas. A low-income establishment, the use of barrels of burning kerosene set across the dancefloor was a common cheap alternative to heating. “They would use something that looked like a garbage pail,” King recalled in an interview, “they’d half fill it with kerosene, light the fuel, and set it in the middle of the dance floor to heat.” A common practice of the time, but highly dangerous. On this particular night, however, two men fighting over a barkeep knocked over the pail spilling open flames across the dancefloor. “It spilled on the floor, it looked like a river fire, everyone started to run, including B.B. King,” the bluesmen recalled.
Making it out safely, there was only one issue. King was without his guitar causing him to run through the open flames to retrieve his prized thirty-dollar Gibson. “It started to fall in around me,” King recalled as he risked his life saving his guitar. It wasn’t until the next day King learned the fight had been caused over a woman employed at the nightclub. Her name, you guessed it, Lucille.
King would go on to play a range of guitars thought his career, christening each one Lucille, as a reminder never to do something as stupid as saving a cheap guitar again. The bluesmen would go on to change guitars quite frequently throughout the 50s and 60s ultimately staying with Gibson each time. It wasn’t until 1965 that King would land on an ES-355, with gold hardware, oversized mother-of-pearl fretboard, a semi-hollow top-of-the-line Gibson, customized with dual humbucker pickups with stereo and mono outputs.
This version of Lucille would become to be known as King’s signature guitar up until Gibson collaborated with King to release an official signature model in the early ’80s. The guitar stayed true to the ES-355 routes although modifications at the Kings request were made to cover the f-hole completely reducing feedback and include the signature name “Lucille” plastered across the headstock.
Gibson would go on to release several versions of Lucille throughout the decades, including an 80th Birthday model made particularly for the king in 2005. This decked out birthday model would go on to be King’s choice guitar up until the summer of 2009 when the guitar was stolen mid-tour. King always traveled with each one of his beloved Lucille’s no matter the time or occasion. Rumored to be taken by a disgruntled stagehand, the guitar ultimately showed up in a Vegas pawn shop, when Eric Dahl came across a sweaty stained guitar labeled, “NOT FOR RESALE – PROTOTYPE 001.” The avid musician knew he came across something special, but he would soon come to realize that King’s guitar was sitting in his possession.
Dahl contacted Gibson and several months later of dead-end inquiries, a member of Kings team reached out personally to Dahl explaining that the guitar was more than a prototype, but the bluesmen personal guitar. King learning the news was ecstatic and met up with Dahl trading him a new autographed Lucille for this prized birthday gift. King’s response to Dahl was, “I hope you enjoyed playing mine as much as I enjoyed this (Dahl’s guitar).”
King indeed would go on to enjoy playing Lucille, right up until his final performance October 3, 2014. In front of a sold-out audience, King would make it through half his set, before flipping over his guitar with a tear and confusion, ending with the song “Lucille” started by the opening line, “The sound that you’re listenin’ to is from my guitar that’s named Lucille.”
The sound heard by generations for more than half a century will live on forever in his recording, and as for Lucille, the case may be closed but her legacy will last forever.