Not that it was a surprise. He was 89 years old, after all, and I had heard that he was recently put under hospice care, which is a sure sign the end is near.
But it’s always hard to accept that a musical legend – and one of my guitar idols, who made such a tremendous impact – is gone.
I am thankful that I had a chance to see him play. It was several years ago in Charlotte, N.C. and although he had to sit down to perform, he still rocked the house and displayed his dominating stage presence.
Back in the 1970s when I was just beginning to learn to play guitar, a friend bought a B.B. King guitar method book for me to help me develop my blues leads. I still have the book and the flimsy 45 RPM vinyl record that came with it.
After hearing the news, I pulled out the book and read through a few of the pages. Besides the lessons and charts inside, B.B shared the following observations:
· For whatever ails you, there’s a blues to fit the situation. It is a sound that I don’t think I learned. It is something, I think, all individuals have; that is, feelings about certain things. The blues is a way of expressing yourself.
· I hear my guitar singing and not just picking and plucking. I hear the guitar as another voice. It’s actually my buddy singing.
· I’ll keep doing my blues. Today (1972) I’m concerned with the world, the survival of humanity.
The book also contained the story of Lucille, B.B.’s preferred guitar model, a Gibson ES355.
“In ’49 we were playing in Twist, AR, about 70 miles northwest of Memphis, TN … in a little dance hall. In the winter time the only thing they had for heat was a big container that looked like a garbage pail, and it was about half full of kerosene. They would just light it and this was the only means for heat. People woul dance around it, never too close to it.
“But on this night, two guys started to fight, and one of them knocked the other over on this pail, and it spilled on the floor. Well, this was a a wooden building. People tried to put out the fire with water and stuff.
“Everybody ran out. You had to go through the front dorr because the back door was nailed up to keep people from sneaking in. So everybody made it for the front door, including B.B. King. But when I got outside, I remembered that I left my guitar inside. I wanted my guitar, man, so I went back inside and almost burned to death trying to save it.
“We found out the next day that two men had been burned to death and that these two guys were fighting about a lady named Lucille. So I named my guitar Lucille to remind me not to do anything silly like that again. You can get another guitar, but not another B.B. King.”
At that time, B.B. had been through 14 Lucilles (mostly due to theft). We will never be able to replace the blues man himself.