The legend, Riley “BB” King has died at age 89. King was a blues singer, songwriter and guitarist who named his instrument Lucille. The iconic musician spent nearly seven decades spreading music he learned growing up in Mississippi and thrilling audiences worldwide. Since his death was announced many have said, “The thrill is gone” as a tribute to his famed song; however, the legend lives on through the years of music he left behind. Ironically, the Lucille singer spread joy to millions by singing the blues.
Having battled unrelenting racism and segregation as a child working in the cotton fields, King learned many life lessons that he would eventually share with the world through his music. The legendary songwriter overcame the tough critics of the entertainment industry to be hailed as one of the biggest superstars in the wide scope of music. His story can be seen in the candid biopic titled, The Life of Riley, which is a definitive documentary of this American treasure. King worked with Jon Brewer, the film’s director, for two years to create the true-to-life film.
Born and raised on the cotton plantations of Mississippi by his grandmother, King exhausted most of his time learning the cotton trade and singing in the church choir. Back in the 1940s The Thrill Is Gone singer was just a blues hopeful who was looking to change life’s circumstances through his talent. He learned early on that he had a knack and ear for music; not just any genre, but the blues in particular. When speaking of the genre he loved so much, King said:
Blues is a tonic for whatever ails you. I could play the blues and then not be blue anymore.
Nearly as celebrated as the man himself was his famed guitar named Lucille. As is King’s custom, he wrote a song to tell the world how his guitar received its name. While playing a gig in Arkansas in the winter of 1949, his set was interrupted by a fight. Subsequently, according to the musician, the fight caused a fire where kerosene smoke-filled the building as all of the people were being evacuated.
B.B., realizing he had left his $30 Gibson guitar behind, ignored the flames and the crowd to rush back into the venue to retrieve his beloved instrument. As a result of the fire two men died. The Every Day I Have the Blues singer later learned the fight was over a female whose name was Lucille. Since Lucille seemed to get the place jumping, or the fire started, King decided that would be a fitting name for his guitar. Although he has switched guitars throughout the years, the name remained and became as celebrated as its owner.
For his music King has received nearly every accolade available in his genre. The legend received a Lifetime Achievement nod, 15 Grammy Awards, Presidential Medal of the Arts, Kennedy Center Honor, International Polar Music Prize, inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Blues Foundation Hall of Fame along with honorary doctorates from Yale and Brown. Out of all of his achievements, the one which meant the most was when he was given the honor of B.B. King Day by the Mississippi state Legislature.
King’s music reached a vast audience leaving behind a great legacy. He has done more to influence mainstream music with the blues than any other. Many can attest to feeling as if they knew Mr. Riley “BB” King personally because they learned his life through the stories shared in his music. The life, the legend and Lucille represent the culmination of collaboration, intentional focus and hard work. The blues icon died on April 14, 2015, but his works will live on forever.
by Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
BB King: The Life of Riley
USA Today: Blues Icon B.B. King Dies at 89
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Featured Image Courtesy of Daniele Dalledonne – Flickr License