Guitar master and singer B.B. King said he was never all that good with words. He spoke best through the sounds, notes and rhythms of his blues guitar.
Riley B. King known to the world as B.B. King was the child of two sharecroppers and started out on a plantation in Mississippi in 1925. He played gospel music in church. He listened to the Victrola blues sounds of blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson and the live steel guitar of his cousin Booker (Bukka) T. Washington.
The first good guitar B.B. ever owned was a Gibson acoustic with a DeArmond pickup he bought with Bukka’s help.
It was the same guitar he was playing in 1949 at a gig near Memphis when a garbage can half-filled with kerosene used to heat the venue set the place ablaze. Everyone headed for the door including B.B. He realized he left his guitar inside and headed back into the burning building to fetch it.
B.B. almost lost his life that night and found out the next day two guys knocked the can over fighting over a woman named Lucille he had never actually met. He decided then and there to name his guitars Lucille to remind him to never do anything that stupid again.
“Whatever form Lucille has taken over the years, she has always been my friend, my tutor, and my way of life,” he said.
As a startup musician B.B. wanted to be cool.
“I was a kid from the country trying to lose the stink of manure,” he said. “I didn’t look like a star. In fact, I never would. Even today I’ll walk down the street and get lost in the crowd.”
Through trial and error he invented an original technique for getting a vibrato sound from his guitar. Vibrato is the wobbling sound of fluctuating pitch that gives huge expression to an instrument or human voice. B.B. wanted to connect his guitar to human feelings. It came naturally to him. He was always looking for ways to let his guitar sing and link his voice with it.
“Both sounds—guitar and voice—were coming out of me, but they issued from different parts of my soul,” he said.
John Lennon said he only wished he could play the guitar like B.B.
In 1950, B.B captured the attention of Modern Records, a Los Angeles company on the lookout for new talent. In 1951 B.B’s world changed overnight. “Three O’Clock Blues” was #2 on Billboard’s R&B chart and soon climbed to #1.
The guitar master left on his first nationwide tour which included three of the biggest venues available to R&B artists: The Howard Theater in Washington D.C., the Royal Theater in Baltimore, and the Apollo Theater in New York City.
When it was all said and done B.B. was a huge star in black America. Mainstream America followed. Touring non-stop he played to audiences in 90 countries over 30 years.
“Moving on is my method of healing my hurt and, man I’ve been moving on all my life,” he said.
B.B’s awards included Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammies (1987), the Presidential Medal of the Arts (1990), and the Kennedy Center Honors (1995).
On Sept 21, Julien’s Auctions, featured the B.B King auction. Here are some current values.
Photograph; color; by Karl Larsen; signed and inscribed; 2005; 20 ½ inches by 16 ½ inches; $1,152.
Oil on Canvas; portrait by Marc Klionsky; signed; 2005; 79 inches by 58 inches; $7,500.
Pocket Watch; yellow gold; Hopkins & Hopkins; engraved B.B. King on the back; gifted by U2; $12,800.
Lucille Guitar; stage played; black Gibson; with B.B. King gold plate on the head stock; $38,400.
Lucille Guitar; stage played primary guitar; black Gibson ES-345 used as a prototype for 80 limited edition Lucille guitars; $280,000.
Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller. For 27 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column. Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles. Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser. Visit the website at www.liveauctiontalk.com