Even if you’ve never been a fan of the blues, you likely need no introduction to B.B King. Like many people, the first music I ever heard from this legendary blues singer and guitarist was his hit record, “The Thrill is Gone”. Ironically, the 89 year old musician can still be heard playing once in a while, almost ten years after his “farewell tour” in 2006. The thrill is not gone for B.B.. When this man pricks his finger to test his blood sugar, he bleeds the blues.
Born Riley B. King in Mississippi in the year 1925, King moved to Memphis, Tennessee to pursue his professional career on Beale Street. The way I heard the story, he was working for a Memphis radio station when he earned the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy”. This was subsequently shortened to “Blues Boy”, then simply B.B. . In his decades long career, he has played thousands of gigs, all around the world.
B.B. King is so synonymous with the blues, his fame sometimes haunts other blues performers. Detroit Blues legend Johnnie Bassett was sometimes asked by novice but well-meaning fans, “When are you gonna play some B.B. King?” . Bassett would answer with a fiery, greasy blues lick on his guitar and say “When is B.B. King gonna play some Johnnie Bassett?!?”. (There is a big hole in the musical heart of Detroit, left by the passing of Bassett. We all miss you, Johnnie!)
If you only know two things about B.B King, they are probably his biggest hit, “The Thrill is Gone” and the fact that he named his guitar “Lucille”. It’s not just one guitar King named “Lucille”, but all of the guitars he has played in his career. Most of the time, it is a semi-hollow body electric Gibson guitar, in black lacquer, that is known by that name. Since 1980, Gibson actually marketed a version to replicate King’s preferred guitar set-up, and sold it as the “Lucille” model. Early in his career, King was playing in a dance club in Arkansas. Two men began a fist fight, and in the tussle somehow started a fire. The club was burning and people evacuated the building. B.B. King realized his favorite guitar was still inside, and actually ran back in the burning club to retrieve his instrument! King later learned the two men that started the fire were fighting over a woman named Lucille. As B.B. tells the story, he named that guitar and all his guitars “Lucille” to remind him not to do anything as stupid as run into a burning building, or fight over a woman ever again. He even wrote a song about “Lucille”.
B.B. King is a consummate showman, which is most evident in his live performances. One of his greatest records is a 1964 live album, “Live at the Regal”. It really is one of the essential blues albums to listen to. King has a rapport and interaction with the audience when he is talking that is just magic. By engaging with his audience, he sets the stage and the mood of the song he is playing, making it easier for his fans to relate to the blues. The blues is not a music that puts you in a bad mood, rather it is a cathartic experience that lets the listener unload his troubles. The bluesy tension of a bent guitar string sound just feels so good. So much of my favorite music is influenced by the blues, directly or indirectly. One of the best, one of the Kings of the blues, is B.B King.