Lucille: mystery woman solved
A marker at the Twist Plantation in Cross County commemorates a fire that broke out during a fight at a dance hall where B.B. King was playing with his band.
The fire started when two men fought over a woman and knocked over a barrel filled with kerosene that was used to heat the club.
The marker says King played there in the mid-1950s, but blues historians agree he was there several years earlier, before King became a star and still played in tiny juke joints not far from his home base in Memphis.
Now a Jacksonville woman confirms the incident occurred in December 1949, and it involved her in-laws — a jealous husband and his wife, Lucille, who was dancing with another man while her husband was gambling in the back of the club.
Maye Alice Banks, who recently moved to Jacksonville, says she’s sure Lucille Banks, her late mother-in-law from Helena, is the real Lucille.
Maye has the details on how the fight broke out between Lucille’s husband and the man who had asked her to dance with him.
“She was a beautiful lady,” her daughter-in-law recalled. “A mix of Indian and black.”
“I married her son, James, in 1974,” says Maye, who lives a few blocks from The Leader. “She told me the story when I married into the family.”
King, who died last May in Las Vegas at the age of 89, told the story many times in his long career of how he saved his guitar from the burning club in Twist and named it after Lucille.
He was never certain about Lucille’s last name, although several women over the years claimed they were Lucille.
Maye shows me a picture of her young mother-in-law, who was born in 1911 in Fordyce in south Arkansas: Lucille is well-dressed, with a hint of a Mona Lisa smile. She was more than a mix of black and Indian: She also had European features that would attract the attention of a lot of men out in the desolate Arkansas Delta.
Lucille was a light-skinned woman who looked a lot like Lena Horne, the singer and actress. Lucille could have been an actress or a black model if she had ever moved to the big city, but she never did.
“She was a homemaker and worked on the farm. She was also a midwife,” Maye says. “She worked hard to support her family.”
The Banks were living in Helena, but Henry was from Palestine in St. Francis County, which is the next county over from Twist. If the Banks were visiting his folks in Palestine that December, it would have been a short trip to Twist.
Lucille was 37 when the fight broke out. She and her husband went to Twist to hear good music, but it was also a chance for Henry to do a little gambling.
You could always gamble in juke joints like the one in Twist, and Lucille’s husband liked to gamble.
“Henry was gambling in the back,” Maye says, “when a man asked her to dance.”
Trouble started when someone told Henry that Lucille was on the dance floor with another man.
People out in the country liked to have a good time on Saturday night, and an innocent dance with a man maybe wasn’t a big deal to Lucille while her husband was shooting craps away from the ladies.
But it was a big deal to Henry. You could see why two men — a jealous husband and a fellow who was struck by her beauty — fought for her affections that night while B.B. King, all of 24, was working on becoming the greatest blues star in history.
Henry lunged at the other guy and they knocked over the barrel of burning kerosene.
Here’s King telling the story of that fight on his CD called “Lucille,” which he recorded in December 1967. It’s a 10-minute monologue as he gently plays his wailing guitar. You can almost see darkness fall on Twist as he tells the story of the fight.
“A lot of you want to know why I call my guitar Lucille,” King says. “Lucille practically saved my life two or three times. No kidding, it really has.
“The way I came by the name of Lucille, I was over in Twist, Arkansas,” King continues. “I know you never heard of that. And one night, the guys started brawling, you know what I mean. The guy that was mad at his old lady fell over on this gas tank that was burning for heat and the gas ran all over the floor, and when the gas ran all over the floor, the building caught on fire, and it almost burned me up trying to save Lucille,” King says.
“Oh, I imagine you’re still wondering why I call it Lucille. The lady that started the brawl that night was named Lucille. That’s been Lucille ever since to me,” says King and asks the studio engineer to let him play his beloved Lucille for another minute, which he does beautifully.
“Everyone dashed out of the burning building,” the marker at Twist says, “but King returned to find his guitar, narrowly escaping the flames. He later learned the fight resulted from a dispute over a woman named Lucille. Ever since, each of his Gibson guitars has been named Lucille as a reminder that he should never fight over a woman.”
And never go back inside a burning building, King said later. He was lucky to get out alive after he retrieved his $30 Gibson acoustic guitar before the place burned down. Two people may have died in the conflagration.
All that remains of the club is a concrete foundation where farm workers danced to the music of the future blues star, who traveled with his beloved Lucille for the next 65 years.
Lucille Banks passed away in February 2004 in Decatur, Ill., at the age of 92. She’s buried in Lexa near Helena.
She gets my vote as the Lucille who inspired B.B. King’s music and changed history forever.