B.B. King Was the Blues

The guitarist, dead at 89, built himself into the figurehead of the genre.

Valentin Flauraud / Reuters
In 1949, the legend goes, B.B. King ran into a burning building to save a guitar he loved. The dance hall he’d been playing at in Twist, Arkansas, caught flame when two men knocked over a barrel of fuel while fighting about a woman. The woman’s name was Lucille—and from that point on, King’s guitar was named Lucille, too.
Though Gibson would later launch a B.B. King Lucille model, and King indeed favored that company’s instruments, there wasn’t just one Lucille. Most any guitar he’d play would get the name.
Much like how the name came to stand in for the instrument, King’s name came to stand, in the public’s imagination, for the kind of music he played. When people today talk about the blues, they’re talking in part about B.B. King; when they talk about B.B. King, they’re talking about the blues. The two concepts are the same.
Credit that fact to King’s talent, which launched him from Mississippi sharecropper to worldwide sensation who influenced generations of musicians. “The tone he got out of that guitar, the way he shook his left wrist, the way he squeezed the strings ... man, he came out with that and it was all new to the whole guitar playin' world,” guitarist and friend Buddy Guy wrote today on Instagram upon learning that King had died at age 89. “He could play so smooth, he didn't have to put on a show. The way BB did it is the way we all do it now.”
But also credit King’s work ethic and his personal vision. He called himself an “ambassador of the blues,” and it was a title he lived up to. “B.B.” was short for “Blues Boy,” his handle as a disk jockey when he worked at a Memphis station in the late 40s; he kept evangelizing for the blues on the radio for much of his life, and still has a Sirius XM channel in his name. In the last three decades, he established a chain of blues clubs that remain vibrant outposts for the genre in places from Times Square to Miami to Las Vegas, the city he made his home since 1975. Most importantly, he toured constantly, playing hundreds of dates a year right up until the fall of 2014.
The whole time, he and his guitar kept telling the story of his life, and the story of the blues. “Lucille took me from the plantation and, you might say, brought me fame,” he sings on the title track of his 1968 album Lucille, on which he tells the story of his guitar’s naming. The song’s more than 10 minutes long, with King’s tangled, mournful solos communicating more about the instrument’s power than words ever could. “Sounds pretty good to me, can I do one more?” King asks, toward the end. “Look out, Lucille. Sounds really good, I think I'll try one more.” Of course, there would be one more after that, and after that.