How Did BB King Get His Name?

B.B. King is widely considered one of the best, if not the best, blues musicians in history. King has been called the "King of the Blues" and is regarded as one of the three Kings of the Blues alongside fellow legends Freddie King and Albert King (despite the same surname, none of them are related). King — who died in 2015 at the age of 89, per NBC News — was known for his call-and-response style of vocals and guitar that he coupled with a signature tone aided by Lucille, his famous, slightly modified Gibson ES-355 (via Gibson). "When I sing, I play in my mind. The minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille," King once explained.

Known for signature tunes like "The Thrill is Gone," King helped shape the electric blues style that became a major influence on generations of guitarists including Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray VaughanJohn Lennon once said, "I wish I could just do like B.B. King."

King's birth name was Riley B. King, so how then did he get the name B.B.? Perhaps, surprisingly it was given to him before he broke out as a blues star.

The early life of B.B. King

Delta blues typically consisted of a solo musician who sang and more often than not played bottle-neck or slide guitar. Early pioneers of the style, like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, produced records in the 1920s and 1930s which helped keep blues alive as it made its way north. According to Britannica, Riley B. King was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi in 1925, right in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of the blues. According to NBC News, King grew up on a tenant farm. One of his earliest musical influences came from going to church and hearing gospel music. There, he picked up gospel's trademark call-and-response structure and infused it into his playing.

King served in the United States Army, and once he was out of the service he moved to Memphis, Tennessee — a blues hotbed. There he worked as a radio DJ and soon picked up the nickname "the Beale Street Blues Boy," after the street in Memphis famous for its live music venues. That's a pretty lengthy nickname, so eventually, it was shortened to Blues Boy, then finally B.B. (via The New York Times).

B.B. King's Lucille gets her name

The newly minted B.B. King hopped into the recording studio in 1949 and cut his first record. According to Biography, that same year he gave his guitar its famous nickname. King — who was notorious for his relentless live touring schedule throughout his 65-year-long career — was playing in Twist, Arkansas when a fight broke out in the crowd. A flaming barrel in the middle of the dance floor (meant to keep dancers warm) tipped over and lit the venue on fire. The place was evacuated, but when King got outside he remembered his guitar — and in some ways, his livelihood — was inside the building. He ran back inside to retrieve his instrument which, according to The New York Times, had been purchased for $30. He grabbed the guitar and ushered it to safety. King learned that the fight precipitating the inferno was between two men fighting over a woman named Lucille. From then on King called his guitar Lucille, as a reminder not to do anything like run into a burning building ever again, or get into a fight over a woman. He played numerous guitars over the years, but referred to each of them as "Lucille."

King went on to score 15 Grammy awards over his immensely successful career. King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and was honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in 1995. In 2006, he was given the United States' highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. King died in 2015 at the age of 89.