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B.B. King's Guitar Name, 'Lucille,' Came From A Near Death Experience


And now, we mark the passing of blues great B.B. King. A Mississippi native, he was born Riley B. King and later went by the name Blues Boy, or B.B.

King took the blues music he'd grown up with to international popularity. He developed a guitar style that attracted millions of fans and deeply influenced generations of musicians. B.B. King played primarily on a Gibson semi-hollow body ES-355, and he had a lot of them over the years, and every guitar was known as Lucille.


B.B. KING: The sound that you're listening to is from my guitar that's named Lucille.

CORNISH: Lucille was born out a near-death experience in the winter of 1949. Here's B.B. King telling that story.


KING: I used to play a place in Arkansas called Twist, Ark., and they used to have a little nightclub there that we played quite often. When we didn't have any other place to play, we were always welcome to play there. Well, it used to get quite cold in Twist, and they used to take something look like a big garbage pail and set it in the middle of the floor, half-fill it with kerosene. They would light that fuel, and that's what we used for heat. And generally, the people would dance around it, you know, never disturb this container. But this particular night, two guys start to fight and then one of them knocked the other one over on this container, and when they did, it spilled on the floor. Now it was already burning, so when it spilled, it looked like a river of fire, and everybody ran for the front door, including yours truly. But when I got on the outside, then I realized that I'd left my guitar inside. I went back for it. The building was a wooden building, and it was burning so fast when I got my guitar, it started to collapse around me. So I almost lost my life trying to save the guitar. But the next morning, we found that these two guys who was fighting was fighting about a lady. I never did meet the lady, but I learned that her name was Lucille. So I named my guitar Lucille and reminded me not to do a thing like that again.

JOE SMITH: (Laughter).

CORNISH: B.B. King speaking to record executive and folklorist Joe Smith. Smith's recordings were donated to the Library of Congress. B.B. King died yesterday in his home in Las Vegas. He was 89. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.