Born Riley B. King in Berclair, Mississippi, and raised by his grandmother, the future “King of the Blues” purchased his first guitar for $15 when he was just 12 years old. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade, and spent much of his early years picking cotton and working as a tractor driver.
Like many legendary Black musicians, he began singing in a gospel choir at church, but, the blues took root in King during his teen years. Called the “Devils Music” by the older religious generations, blues is considered by many to be the only truly indigenous American music, and over time, King would become its foremost ambassador.
After a short stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, King returned home to work as a farmer. But King wrecked the tractor of the white plantation owner and fled town to start another life’ this time in Memphis.
There, King officially launched his musical career in the late 1940s. He honed his vibrato style of playing. Working steady gigs at a string of clubs, he got his first real break on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “King Biscuit Time” radio show and hosted a 10-minute program on WDIA as “the Beale Street Blues Boy,” a name he eventually shortened to Blues Boy and then B.B. King.
Over the next seven decades, King produced dozens of albums for various labels and released a string of hits. Among his notables are “The Thrill Is Gone”;”3 O’Clock Blues”; “You Know I Love You”; “Woke Up This Morning”; “Every Day I Have The Blues”; and, “Sweet Little Angel”.
Although he originally played to all-black audiences, King’s distinctive voice soon won him fans the world over. Between the release of his landmark album “Live at the Regal” in 1965—which would later be preserved by the
Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry — and the charting of his 1969 LP “Live and Well,” King became a true star. By the late 1960s, he was making appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show.”
Playing on a Gibson ES-355 guitar he lovingly named “Lucille”, King would weave a musical tapestry that masterfully fused elements of blues and jazz. These passionate sounds not only won him countless fans but influenced many other artists, including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix.
Story Behind Lucille
In the winter of 1949, King played at a dance hall in Twist, Arkansas. In order to heat the hall, a barrel half-filled with kerosene was lit, a fairly common practice at the time. During a performance, two men began to fight, knocking over the burning barrel and sending burning
fuel across the floor. The hall burst into flames, and the building was evacuated.
Once outside, King realized that he had left his guitar
inside so he went back into the burning building to retrieve his beloved $30 Gibson guitar. Two men died in the fire, and King learned the next day that they had been fighting over a woman named Lucille.
King subsequently named that first guitar Lucille, as well as every guitar he owned since, as a reminder never again to do something as stupid as run into a burning building or fight over women.
B.B. King wrote a song called “Lucille” in which he talks about his guitar and how it got its name. The song is included on the B. B. King Anthology 1962–1998 album.
King won the first of his 15 Grammy Awards in 1951 and joined the Grammy Hall of Fame 47 years later. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and the R&B Music Hall of Fame in 2014. Rolling Stone magazine also ranked him at No. 3 in its 2003 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.