CEO of Gibson, Long-Time Guitar Home of B.B. King, Remembers the Legend: 'He Was Truly a King'

Charlie Gillett Collection/Redferns
BB King playing guitar live on stage.  

The head of Gibson Brands remembers B.B. King's decades-long relationship with the guitar manufacturer.

One name will always be associated with B.B. King: Lucille, the name he gave to his guitar. King got the name from an incident at a club in Arkansas in 1949, when a fight broke out during King's performance, starting a fire. King escaped the club before returning to rescue his guitar, naming it after the woman at the center of the fire-starting fisticuffs.

Gibson has produced many different versions of King's signature model, also called the Lucille, and King was also a long-time partner of the company. Billboard talked to Gibson Henry Juszkiewicz, the CEO of Gibson Brands, Inc., about King's relationship to Gibson and his impact on music. Juszkiewicz remembers King as a gentleman who loved his fans and was an invaluable ambassador for the blues. 

When I interviewed you last you had mentioned his health was not good. That wasn't very long ago, and now he's passed away. 

He is really one of the true legends in the industry. His magnitude is -- I don't even know what the word for it is. You saw that when you met him, even though he was a very down-key kind of gentleman, you could see the awesomeness in the personality and that big smile of his. I'm very saddened for his loss.

How long was he with Gibson?

He was with Gibson well before my time. [Juszkiewicz arrived at Gibson in 1986.] When I came to Gibson, Gibson was in a bad situation. We were a tiny company. There were a lot of larger competitors that probably would have given him a pile of money. I heard from some of the people around B.B. the reason he stuck with us was when he was down and out as a musician, Gibson was always there for him and at one point was the only real money he was getting. He always remembered that and he was always very loyal to our company as a consequence.

What did B.B. mean to Gibson?

I think any time you have a close relationship with a legendary person like B.B. that sort of halo carries over to us. He really did actually love our guitars. He was one of the few artists we have would actually go into the factory or one of the showrooms and pick up a guitar that came from the factory and played it that evening. What we sell is really what he played and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

You're a guitar player. What do you think the blues would have been without B.B. to carry on the tradition for so many years?

To a certain extent, blues is one of those fundamental music forms like bluegrass and country that every top musician reveres but isn't all that popular at the end of the day with consumers. It's kind of a struggling art form, and yet it's fundamental to every popular song we hear. So I think the iconic nature of B.B. was able to buoy up that art form and keep it in the public eye. He really was truly a king. His glow and his personality and his notoriety really buoyed the entire music form and many other artists who were able to make a living off of it.

What was he like with fans or guitar players that wanted to speak with him?

B.B., like so many legends that I've met, truly loved people. He loved his fans. It was just a sort of thinking that he was serving his fans. He truly loved them. He would drop everything. If he was talking a $10-million deal and a fan walked by, the fan was more important. He would immediately sign things. He would give them a B.B. King [guitar] pick and smile and chat and totally focus on that individual. That's really classy.

What about his guitars? Will Gibson keep making them as always?

The Lucille and that specific guitar has become part of him, if you will. And like I said, he actually played the guitars that came from the factory near Beale Street in Memphis. B.B. and his people would come through that factory all the time. They're indelibly linked.

When you think of B.B., do you think of any story or any particular time you spend with him?

Very early on after I was with Gibson and I had met B.B., I was flying to the Orient and I noticed the stewardess was wearing a B.B. King pin. In fact, I looked around and it looked like the entire flight staff was wearing B.B. King pins. And so I asked her, "Is every one here a B.B. King fan? Why are you wearing these pins?" She said, You're not going to believe this, but we just flew back to the U.S. with B.B. on the plane. He was in first class, and a fan came back from coach to talk to B.B.. We tried to shoe the fan away and maintain B.B.'s privacy, but he said, "No no no no. Anybody that wants to talk to me I'd be happy to talk to them."

And so the fan asked B.B. to play something on the plane for him. And B.B. said, "No problem." He grabbed his guitar that was in one of the closets and started playing and singing in the first class section. Everybody came up from coach and he had an impromptu concert on the plane, and then he distributed his B.B. King pins to every one including the flight staff.

How incredible is that? I think it says a lot about him. We all should be saddened an individual of such character and joy in musicianship has left us. 


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