B.B. King owes several facets to his career to Arkansas. Soon, there will be a monument to mark one of them — where King got the name for his guitar, Lucille.
Most blues fans have heard about how King named his guitar after an altercation in Cross County’s hamlet of Twist. Sen. Steve Bryles of Blytheville has heard the stories, and in the Arkansas Legislature’s 85th general assembly Bryles introduced what became the “Lucille” law.
“I’ll never forget the first time that I heard it,” Bryles said. “It was a 1971 album where B.B. repeats the story of the birth of Lucille ... I was surprised. The story stuck with me.”
Here’s how King tells it: “I was over in Twist, Arkansas, ... one night, the guys started a brawl over there. And the guy that was mad with his old lady, when she fell over on this gas tank that was burning for heat, the gas ran all over the floor. ... The building caught on fire — and almost burned me up trying to save Lucille. ... The lady that started that brawl that night was named Lucille.”
A fan of music and Arkansas history, District 15’s Bryles says creating the monument — to be erected by the Arkansas History Commission — would document state culture and help tourism.
Riley B. King was born Sept. 16, 1925, in Itta Bena, Miss. He’s one of many performers credited to Memphis who actually honed their chops in wide-open West Memphis. Howlin’ Wolf famously called his rocked-up blues “the West Memphis sound.” And like Wolf and many other legends, King performed on the city’s famed KWEM radio. This led to a steady gig playing at West Memphis’ Sixteenth Avenue Grill.
One of King’s first hits was a cover of Helena-born Robert Nighthawk’s “Sweet Black Angel.” But King’s strongest East Arkansas connection may be R&B pioneer Louis Jordan of Brinkley. King says, “Louis was remarkable, because I think he was so far ahead of his time. What he was doing became the origins of rap. ... I idolized his talent.” In 1999, King released a tribute album, “Let the Good Times Roll: The Music of Louis Jordan.”
Today, King is the world’s best-known blues performer. The 1987 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has performed with rock royalty and played for actual royalty and presidents — all with guitars named Lucille. King gives Lucilles to dignitaries; one hangs in Little Rock’s Clinton Presidential Center.
“Lucille has practically saved my life two or three times,” King says. “Once I was in an automobile accident, and when the car stopped turning over, it fell over on Lucille, and it held it up off me — really, it held it up off me.”
The original Lucille from the Twist fire was a Gibson acoustic. Since, they’ve been Gibson electrics, and are available commercially — manufactured in Memphis. There’s also a budget line of Lucilles put out by Epiphone. King’s song publishing company is even called Sounds of Lucille.
And it all stems from a horrific 1949 event where two people died in a Twist juke joint — and a woman named Lucille.
King and “Lucille” will perform May 27 in Little Rock at the opening night of Riverfest.
• “Sweet Black Angel,” Robert Nighthawk
• “Sweet Little Angel,” B.B. King
• “Let the Good Times Roll: The Music of Louis Jordan,” B.B. King, 1999