Not every guitarist is particular about their instrument, Jimi Hendrix used to set his on fire after all, but some strummers out there form such a spiritual bond with their six-string that they’d brave the very flames Hendrix was conjuring just to save them. The story of B.B. King’s legendary Lucille is one born in flames and fighting, the quintessential blues duo.
B.B. King, the late ‘king of the blues’, became one of the most influential figures in music history with many regarding his unique riffing as one of the building blocks that kickstarted the movement from blues to fully formed rock and roll. Whether it be Willie Nelson’s dilapidated ‘Trigger’ or Robert Johnson’s mystic seven-string, there have been many sacred guitars that were central to music’s evolving journey, but none that seem quite as precious to their player as King’s beloved Lucille. This is a point proven in the song ‘Lucille’ and ode to the guitar itself, in which B.B. sings: “I’m very crazy about Lucille / Lucille took me from the plantation / Oh and you might say / Brought me fame.” Those lyrics serve as the perfect depiction of early popular music’s near-divine potential to offer deliverance from hardship, but perhaps the very story of how Lucille came to be is even more epitomising.
It’s a tale that has all the same mystic overtones as any good blues story. When B.B. King was just a young upstart — a difficult thing to imagine in of itself considering the musical statesman he went on to be — he would frequently play a nightclub joint called Twist in Arkansas.
It’s a story that the blues star has regaled many times over, and he drawls out in practised speech, “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.” Whilst that sort of heating system may not make it through the rigours of modern health and safety standards it wasn’t all that uncommon in American dive joints at the time, only becoming an issue when the atmosphere got equally firey. However, with blues riffs stirring and the booze flowing, that firey atmosphere was never far from fruition.
“Two guys got to fighting,” B.B. King continues, “And they knocked the pale over, causing what looked like a river-fire to spill over onto the dance floor.” With the bar fire raging, everybody made for the exits, and as the bluesman adds in comedic style, “Including BB King!”
Stood outside the burning building, the horrible realisation came to King that he had left his guitar inside. It would have been a sombre moment of goodbye for most folks, but B.B. was not prepared to watch it perish. He rushed into the burning bar at just about the same moment that the ceiling began to cave in, the single most dangerous moment of any fire. Traversing through the boozy inferno, he made his way back to his guitar, almost losing his life in the process. He emerged from the blaze clutching his cherished six-string under his arm and headed straight for home.
The next morning it was revealed that the two men had begun fighting over a lady called Lucille who worked at the bar. As B.B. King concludes with the punchline to his incredible true story, “I named my guitar Lucille to remind me never to do a thing like that again.”
15 Grammy wins later the blues legend is an icon that transcends the eras, defining sound and a certain soul that can be found lacking in most cases today. Throughout his career he played many guitars, mostly semi-hollowed bodied Gibson’s, but each and everyone one of them after that incident was called Lucille.