“The minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.” — B.B. King
It’s 1949, and 24-year-old B.B. King, née Riley B. King, is playing a nightclub in Twist, Arkansas, then, as it is now, an unincorporated community 40 miles over the Arkansas state line from Memphis. King is onstage, promoting his debut single, “Miss Martha King,” on a cold winter night. The nightclub doesn’t have much by way of an HVAC system, so as a way to keep the place warm, there’s a bucket of kerosene and rags burning in the corner. Two men — their names lost to history — have a quarrel that escalates and escalates until one of them takes a tumble into that open kerosene bucket, spilling its contents across the wooden floor and turning the nightclub into a giant wooden bomb.
Everyone flees the club, including King, who throws his $30 black Gibson guitar ($315 in 2019 dollars) on the ground and hightails it out of there. Once outside,watching the place burn, King realizes he needs his guitar to feed himself. So he runs back in to get the guitar and finds it unscathed next to a wall of flame. The building was not so lucky; it burned to the ground shortly after King escaped with his guitar. King would later say that the building fell around him as he exited, nearly killing him. We can’t verify that; after all, this is his origin story, his radioactive spider, his bath in the river Styx.
Outside and safe, he hears the story of why the two men were quarreling. It was over a woman named Lucille, who both men considered their girlfriend. Lucille’s opinion on the matter is not known to us, but she would go on to bigger fame than either of them. King christened his guitar as Lucille in her honor that night, as a way to remind himself how stupid he was to go into a burning building. For the rest of his 89 years, it was never just B.B. King, anymore. It was B.B. King and Lucille, attached at the hip, a guitar so famous it had a name, got a historical marker (which dates the performance in Twist to the mid-’50s, but B.B. always said it was 1949 in interviews) and was so recognizable that Gibson released multiple editions of the Lucille, the same way Nike has done multiple editions of the Jordan. King’s self-made modifications to the non-branded versions — he’d stuff rags into the F-holes to reduce feedback — became standard on the Lucille line, which lost the F-holes entirely, thanks to him.
A dramatic retelling of the night Lucille got her name is the first song, and 10-minute title track, of B.B. King’s 15th studio album, Lucille. King spends the song’s minutes winding the story from Twist, Arkansas, into stories of Lucille’s strength: how she lifted a car off him after a car crash, how she delivered him from the plantation to the stage, and how he’d be a crooner like Frank Sinatra if that’s the music Lucille wanted to play. But lucky for him, she only wants to sing the blues. It’s a musical tribute that most people are lucky to get even if they’ve lived a good life, and it might be the most straightforwardly autobiographical song in King’s songbook. It was through Lucille that King made his lasting contribution to blues music and the giant celestial jukebox, a man who could make his guitar cry more mournfully than the saddest voices. King’s lasting impact on the blues — he’s responsible for pioneering the pulled strings and vibrato-heavy guitar solos that are part of the fabric of the blues now, influencing multiple generations of younger guitarists — might not have been possible if he had never found Lucille, and King knew it. Which is why he made the song, and this album, for her.
Before he was B.B., Riley King was the son of sharecroppers, born in 1925 in Indianola, Mississippi. Like many famous musicians before him, he fell in love with music in church, first as a choir member, then on guitar, which he was taught by his minister. He worked as a tractor driver and farmhand throughout his youth and early 20s, playing music on the weekends and working weeks to support himself. In 1945, he moved to Memphis to live with his cousin, the legendary blues guitarist Bukka White, who gave him more musical education, before having to retreat back to the fields again for another year. In 1947, he moved back to Memphis and left the fields behind for good, as he eventually ended up as a radio DJ on the legendary radio station WDIA. King was a regular guest on Sonny Boy Williamson’s show, and the station is where he picked up the name Beale Street Blues Boy, which he later shortened to B.B.
It was during this period that King got his formal blues education; he spent most of his days listening to blues and jazz records — he loved jazz guitarists as much as blues ones — and he began working with artists like Robert Lockwood, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and more, at night in the clubs on Beale Street. He gained a level of fame around Memphis, eventually recording for the local Sun Records, but none of his records could completely capture the live sound that made King a favorite on the blues circuit; he was known for performing more than 300 shows every year through most years of the ’50s. His original label, Crown Records, didn’t know how to market King; he was too young to be caught up in the Delta blues revival of the late ’50s and early ’60s — like Buddy Guy, a contemporary — but also wasn’t making the fun-loving R&B that was dominating the black charts. He toyed with the idea of signing to Chess Records — the blues powerhouse — but was dissuaded by Chess songwriter and producer Willie Dixon, who told him he’d be better off on his own. In the early ’60s, he opted, after more than 15 years and 11 LPs with Crown, to jump to the newer ABC Paramount, which had designs on turning King into a star.
King’s first LP for ABC Paramount, Mr. Blues, was of the same ilk as his records on Crown: a partially buttoned up affair that never quite landed. It wasn’t until his second ABC Paramount LP, 1965’s Live at the Regal, that B.B. made his first album-length contribution to the blues canon. Widely considered to be one of the best live blues albums ever made, it became an essential text for a new generation of performers who were just then starting to take the U.K. by storm: the white guys turning the blues into rock ’n’ roll. Listening to the album became a pre-show ritual for the rising blues guitarist Eric Clapton, who was about to found the band Cream, and who’d later record and tour with King. King started touring rock venues that the bands inspired by him were playing, which led to bigger crowds, tours with those rockers, and even more live dates.
Live at the Regal became a favorite of blues fans, and though it didn’t turn B.B. into a household name, it did provide a roadmap for his studio LPs: the closer they could sound to Live at the Regal, the better. King’s contract with ABC Paramount was shifted to their subsidiary Bluesway, a blues label run by jazz and blues record producer Bob Thiele, who produced a series of records for blues greats like John Lee Hooker (including It Serve You Right To Suffer, VMP Classics #2). Thiele would oversee King’s rise from a relatively unknown traditionalist to, in many ways, the most mainstream face of the blues through the ’70s and beyond.
Thiele hit upon the sound that would define the rest of King’s studio career: big band accompaniment — B.B. loved his jazz — crossed with soul music horns, with plenty of open space in the arrangements for King to drive solos down and through. Thiele produced only one King album himself, Lucille, which built upon and perfected the sound of an earlier 1968 album recorded around the same time, Blues on Top of Blues. Lucille represents a flash point in King’s discography, the moment that his blues removed some of the pop schmaltz that used to permeate its edges, and gained the sound that would propel him into his biggest fame the next year with “The Thrill Is Gone.” In the studio, Thiele and King finally accomplished what B.B. had been trying to do all along: combine the punch of soul music with his electric blues guitar leads. That sound congealed for the first time on a studio recording on Lucille.
Lucille took shape across two December nights in 1967. The first night, December 18, featured B.B. playing with a whopping nine piece band, and the second, December 20, featured a sextet. There’s not much difference between the sessions but for the role the bigger horn section in the nonet plays on the four tracks they’re featured on (“Stop Putting the Hurt on Me,” “Rainin’ All the Time,” “You Move Me So,” and “I’m With You”). The title track and inspiration for the album itself was an act of kismet on the second night of recording with the smaller band. During a break, Thiele was talking to King through the monitors while King was plucking at his guitar and telling the producer the story of Lucille. “It was during the taping session. We were taking a break when I noticed B.B. doodling on the guitar,” Thiele says in the original liner notes. “He was idling through some runs and started to tell me the story of Lucille. I grabbed the switch, signaled the engineer, and flipped him on live.” The nearly 11 minute song is one of the loosest in B.B.’s catalog, but also one where he is openly crafting his own mythology. Towards the end of his life and career, it became almost like a myth; B.B. King and Lucille, riding into town to save the blues, night after night, year after year. Listening to “Lucille” is listening to King making that legend on wax, in real time.
King always said that he and Lucille had the same voice, that he saw her wails as an extension of his own. That might not be more true than on the rest of Lucille, an album that highlights King’s voice as much as his guitar playing. He hollers and howls over the brisk “You Move Me So,” and he goes full nightclub crooner on “I Need Your Love.” “I’m With You” starts to show the range in vocals King would use to great effect on “The Thrill Is Gone”; he goes from pleading to roaring in seconds, and threads his solos with his vocals like they’re having a conversation. That conversant quality goes for the album’s strongest guitar workout as well; “No Money, No Luck Blues” sounds like Lucille comforting King as he wails about money problems. “Watch Yourself,” the album’s final track, bookends “Lucille” with its other choicest cut; as the album closes, King growls and Lucille bellows at a duplicitous woman who’s done B.B. wrong.
Lucille came out in 1968 and made little impact until the next year when, two albums later, King would have the breakthrough that he’d been working toward for more than 20 years. “The Thrill Is Gone,” the smash single from 1969’s Completely Well, established him as the most commercially successful modern blues artist, as it went to No. 15 on Billboard’s pop charts. Lucille became a curio for all the listeners working through King’s back catalog, who were now familiar with the singer and his famous guitar.
King and Lucille would ride the fame of “The Thrill Is Gone” for the next 45 years, as B.B. survived all the other musical forms that came and went over those years, one of the few surviving bluesmen to not be completely replaced by rock ‘n’ roll, disco, or rap music. King kept performing hundreds of nights a year and brought his blues around the world many times over until his death in 2015. King died at the age of 89 and was buried on the grounds of the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi, the city he had put on the map. Lucille lays in state as one of the museum’s main exhibits.