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At an age when most people have long ago retired, legendary bluesman B.B. King is still making Lucille sing. 

Forever Blue

Blues master B.B. King laughs when he talks about the origins of those sweet tones he coaxes from his guitar, Lucille. His trademark sting of vibrato and his clear, upper-register, single-note runs are the core of his sound. But he'll tell you he's pretty much in the dark as far as knowing where the inspiration for his style comes from.

"I hear it in my head. That's all I can tell you," the 74-year-old bluesman says by phone from a north Michigan casino as he rests up for the night's show. The same tour brings him to Richmond's Landmark Theater May 23. "I can tell you one thing that might make some sense," he continues. "I wanted it to kind of sing like a sax."

Sing, indeed. King's Lucille has sung with enough soul to take him to audiences in 88 countries since he started playing professionally in Memphis in the late '40s. He's cut more than 50 albums and has won a guitar-case full of Grammy Awards.

"I'm not sure," King recalls when asked how many of the awards he's received. "Eight or nine — but I think it's eight."

Riley B. King took to the guitar at an early age growing up on a farm in rural Mississippi. King's pastor played the instrument and the boy wanted to be like the good reverend. Fortunately, the pastor was an in-law of King's uncle and he'd bring the guitar to family dinners. One night, while the adults were eating and the kids were playing, the preacher left the guitar on a bed.

"That was a good chance for me to get to it," King recalls, still sounding slightly mischievous. Young King was caught in the act, but the pastor insisted there be no punishment for the boy and instead gave King a key to his future.

"He showed me three chords," King recalls. "I still use them today."

King got his own acoustic guitar when he was about 12 — "I really liked that red Stella" — and he played around the community when he wasn't picking cotton. He'd heard some T-Bone Walker records at his Delta home in Indianola and they helped point him toward the blues. By the time he returned home from a stint in the army, King knew he wanted to take a chance on a musical future. Musicians passing through his town had told him about the opportunities in Memphis about 100 miles up the road. In 1946, 22-year-old King made the move north.

"It was a big city experience, yeah," King recalls. "A whole other world."

King's cousin Bukka White lived in Memphis. White was a famous bluesman in his own right. But while White may have helped King get a job with him making gasoline storage tanks, that doesn't mean he showed the young man any guitar licks.

"He didn't," King says. "People say he did but recently I've been trying to set the record straight. But he was a great influence … I liked the way he carried himself."

King had an electric sound by now and he was making the Beale Street rounds listening to guitar players in the park and soaking up the music in the street. Down on Beale people danced and gambled and lived life to the hilt.

"It was really nice. … It was like community college for me," King says with some lingering fondness in his voice. "I was like a sponge."

Looking for every opportunity, King went to West Memphis where harp legend Sonny Boy Williamson II had the popular King Biscuit radio show. Sonny Boy put King on the show and later sent him to fill in for him at a gig at the 16th Street Grill in West Memphis. King remembers the first night went well.

"It was my first break," he recalls. "It knocked me out. … There were a lot of pretty girls there."

The owner offered him a job six nights a week at $12.50 a night and room and board if, like Sonny Boy, King could get a radio slot in the area. King landed on Memphis station WDIA as a disc jockey with his own blues show. He was tagged "The Beale Street Blues Boy"— later shortened to "Blues Boy" or B.B. — and King got the playing gig across the river. He soon began to travel the region playing shows but he kept his DJ job. The early '50s brought King some hits of his own and in 1955 he quit the radio to go on the road. He's still there.

King says he doesn't have to play the blues these days, that he could have retired "a long time ago." But he still plays his music because it brings special feelings and memories alive for his fans. Some have told him they've become engaged at shows. Others have told him they've conceived children after his concerts. He's moved many through the years and will continue to move many more.

"I like that," he says quietly. "They live a life for 90 minutes of things I'm putting them through
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