What you see: A prototype black Gibson ES-345 Lucille guitar, stage-played by B.B. King in his later years. Julien’s estimates it at $80,000 to $100,000.
The expert: Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions.
So, let’s start by explaining the deal with Lucille. How many Lucilles did B.B. King have over the course of his career? Is there an official count? There’s no official count, but we know there were many. Lucille dates back to 1949, when he was in his 20s and playing a venue in Arkansas. It was heated by a bucket of kerosene. A fight broke out between two men, and the kerosene was kicked over and started a fire. B.B. King realized he’d left his guitar behind, a very inexpensive Gibson arch top, and ran into the burning building and got it out. He found out that the fight was over a woman called Lucille.
And B.B. King named that guitar and all his subsequent main guitars Lucille as a reminder not to do something silly like run into a burning building to save a guitar? And to never fight over a woman.
So B.B. King had many Lucilles over the years, and not all looked the same, but what are the characteristics of a Lucille? What do most of us think of when we think of his guitar, Lucille? When you talk about what’s recognized as a Lucille, it’s black with gold hardware, and it’s a Gibson ES-345 guitar. It probably dates back to 1967, when he shifted his affection to the Gibson 345. That’s a luxurious model, a high-end guitar, very fitting for the king of the blues, B. B. King.
There are several Lucilles in the September 21 auction, but this particular one has the highest estimate of all. What makes this B.B. King Lucille guitar that much more valuable than the others? It’s a prototype, made for his 80th birthday. It was prototype one. He played it for the rest of his life. His last performance, in 2014, was with this particular guitar. It was one he cherished, and it was so beautifully done, customized for him to celebrate his 80th birthday. [King died in 2015, at the age of 89.]
And it became his main guitar from the time he received it from Gibson? Yes. This was his main guitar. He cherished it. There always seems to be a story to Lucille–this one was stolen from him in 2009, and he was devastated. It showed up in a pawn shop [later in 2009] in Las Vegas. A guitar dealer found it, sweaty, with broken strings, and with “prototype one guitar” on the back. He contacted Gibson, which put him in contact with B.B. King. He was very happy to be reunited with the Lucille guitar. He traded [a different guitar] to the dealer, saying, “I hope you enjoy playing this as much as I enjoy playing this prototype guitar.”
Does the fact that the B.B. King Lucille guitar was stolen and recovered make it more interesting to collectors? Its intrinsic value is $8,000 to $10,000, let’s say. I think the John Lennon Gibson we sold for $2.4 million had an intrinsic value of $2,000. That was stolen at a Christmas show in 1963. People loved the story, and it definitely played into it selling for $2.4 million.
Do we know how many concerts B.B. King played with this Lucille? It would have been in the hundreds. He worked tirelessly. In his heyday, he played over 300 concerts a year. He came from very humble beginnings and he strived to become famous. When he got to a plateau in his career he never wanted to let go of that. He enjoyed playing music.
Does the September 21 sale represent the first time any B.B. King-owned and -stage played Lucille guitars have gone to auction? It’s the first time B.B. King has gone to auction with any of his guitars. It’s coming directly from his home to the auction block. That’s where the value is–the provenance, the chain of ownership, collectors love that. Being the next owner after the celebrity adds huge value.
What condition is the B.B. King Lucille guitar in? There’s no one area I’d say is worn down. It’s a heavy-duty guitar, a beauty of a guitar, but you can look at it and see it’s not pristine. There are little scratches that indicate it’s not a brand new guitar.
Have you played it? I have not, but I’ve held it many times. It’s amazing.
Is it well-balanced? It’s very well-balanced. It’s a very, very heavy guitar. For me to carry it for a period of time, it’s a challenge. I have handled many, many guitars, and this one stands out as being particularly heavy.
Is it solid? Semi-solid.
Would its weight have affected its sound? Yes, it definitely affects the sound. That’s why he liked it. He collaborated with Gibson on the guitar and definitely, the weight impacted the sound. That was important to B.B. King as a bluesman.
What is your favorite detail on this B.B. King Lucille guitar? The gold inlay, the crown representing the king, his signature in gold on it–it’s just a beautiful instrument.
Image is courtesy of Julien’s Auctions.
Martin Nolan previously spoke to The Hot Bid about the “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to serenade JFK; the first TCB necklace given away by Elvis Presley, a purple Prince-worn tunic that the star donned for a 1998 BET interview, which yielded a famous GIF; a Joseff of Hollywood simulated diamond necklace worn by Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, and several other Hollywood actresses, as well as a once-lost 1962 Gibson acoustic guitar belonging to John Lennon that sold for $2.4 million–a record for any guitar at auction.
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