B.B. King, Lucille and Gibson: The origins of a lifelong partnership

The late blues musician B.B. King forged one of the most enduring relationships in music history — with his guitar Lucille.

It's the name the 15-time Grammy winner, who died last week at age 89 in Las Vegas, gave his beloved Gibson ES-355, one of the most famous instruments in history.

But there was more than one Lucille in King's life. The first guitar to take the name was nothing fancy. In 1949, King rescued his $30 Gibson L-30 acoustic from a fire at an Arkansas venue that started with two men fighting over a woman named Lucille. King named the guitar after her.

The bluesman played many different guitars over the years (mainly Gibsons), but the instrument most associated with him is the Gibson ES-355 semi-hollow body electric he played for decades. A variation on Gibson's ES-335 semi-acoustic, the ES-355 had been King's instrument of choice since 1959.

Henry Juszkiewicz, chief executive of Nashville-based Gibson Guitar Corp., said the association with King has been a boon for the company and its image.

“We've acquired a bit of his halo,” Juszkiewicz said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Plenty of musicians have strong associations with the guitars they play — Eric Clapton’s Stratocaster and Angus Young’s red Gibson SG come to mind — but few have built the legacy of King’s Lucille and her sweet, stinging wail.

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King even wrote a 10-minute song about his guitar called “Lucille.” Released on a 1968 album of the same name, it tells the story of the prized guitar, and also chronicles his own rise from Mississippi plantation worker to “King of the Blues.”

King often played “stock” guitars, sometimes stopping by a Gibson showroom on the day of a set to pick one up.

In the early 1980s, King and Gibson teamed up for a special Lucille model, removing the f-holes to limit feedback. As he got older, he developed a taste for more ornate guitars to go with his colorful jackets and black bow tie.

Gibson's black B.B. King Lucille 2015, which lists for $4,199, features gold-plated hardware, mother of pearl inlays, and, of course, the “Lucille” signature on the headstock.

Juszkiewicz admits the company doesn’t sell many Lucille guitars, but noted that interest could pick up in the wake of King’s passing.

A 2007 Guitar Player magazine article quoted King explaining how he settled on his trademark instrument.

“Fenders, Gretsches, Silvertones — you name them, I’ve probably had one,” the guitarist told the magazine. “When I found that Gibson with the long neck, that did it. That’s like finding your wife forever.”

Juszkiewicz said Gibson was considering various ways to honor King in the near future and would discuss options with his family. The company may put on an event at Gibson’s factory in Memphis, Tenn., off Beale Street, and probably create something more permanent at the location. Fittingly, the building is just a short walk from a B.B. King’s Blues Club.

Juszkiewicz said King will be best remembered for his soul and his sound, which is inextricably linked with Gibson. King and his guitar produced a tone that was his, alone.

“It was like someone's voice,” Juszkiewicz said. “You can hear one note played by B.B. and you know it's B.B.”

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

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Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

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