B.B. King / Lucille
How Dennis Chandler Helped Make Happen The B.B. King/ Lucille Signature Production Line Model
Dennis Chandler and B. B. King first met in the ’60s and about that more will written, later. Right now, here is how he got Gibson to make the guitar model ES-355-TDSV… “The B. B. King/ Lucille” Signature model.
WHAT is a signature guitar? Models made and named for an artist i.e., the late, great Les Paul, who had his own Gibson model; one that is still in production today. In fact, dear Les Paul and one of those guitars, his “THE No. 1 Les Paul”, was responsible for paving the way for “Lucille”. (More about that on the Les Paul page.)
WHY… did Dennis vow (back in 1965) to B.B., his dear teacher and mentor, that he would be the one “to get Gibson to make King his own signature guitar”. Because he felt that the Gibson ES-355-TDSV should be renamed to honor B.B.King. Warmly called “Lucille” by B.B. and fans alike, “Why not make it official?”
HOW … to get “Lucille” made as a model? His campaign started with letters to Gibson in the early ’70s.
Dennis’ campaign really swelled when he went to work for Gibson in ’78. Oh, what a tapestry was being woven. Read how the door to Gibson… was pried open… with one of the most beautifully matched wood-grain guitars (I ever saw). It’s the one Les called, “Lucky”… and its back story in its entirety (sorta)… is fleshed out on the webpage titled, “The Les Paul No. 1”.
Here is some of that story: Turns out “The LP No. 1” was shipped out by accident from the Gibson factory to a local music store. It was owned by Dick Sodja. Here’s a photo from when “Lucky”, went visiting (at a later date)… to thank the two who originally brought the guitar to our attention. The ripples really went out into the Universe for Les, BB and us.What wonderful friends we have in them. Thank you Ken and Dick.
1977: Dick Sodja, a longtime friend was an early influence in childhood music lessons for “Chandler!“, as he called him. So it was no surprise that the store’s longtime-luthier-whiz… Ken Lesko told DC about the LP… and when Dick showed the LP… he sold the LP… to Dennis. It was a Blessing. Here’s why…
When it was time to file the registration of the LP… he called Gibson. BB King gave Dennis the name of Bruce Bolen. He was someone BB had talked to in the past about guitars. Bolen was excited to find out where the guitar was… (Recall it was shipped out by accident and they did NOT know where it landed). He assumed since Dennis dropped BB King’s name… that the guitar landed in Las Vegas (where BB lived). When he heard Dennis say he bought it in Cleveland, he exclaimed, “How the h_ll did it land in Cleveland?” He then expressed that the guitar company would like to get the LP back. Dennis was asked by Bolen, “What would it take for you to sell the LP?” Dennis responded, “The Les Paul Number One is NOT for sale, yet“. But, how about a job with Gibson?” Why did he ask? His sales-marketing-state-of-mind… made him do it. (One can read about DC’s business background on the webpage titled, “Biz to Biz”).
Sooo… from the backburner of his brain to the forefront came… that idea about BB’s Lucille. It was always on his mind and in his heart… the promise he made BB… that he’d, “be the one to get Gibson to make an official production line model… the BB King / Lucille signature guitar”. Off he was, in the running. Turns out Joe Brown a revered veteran sales rep of 50 years… announced he wanted to retire. Applicants were already being interviewed. Coincidentally, Sodja told Joe about this customer he called, “Chandler!”… how he bought the LP # 1… and that Gibson asked to buy back the guitar. But, instead DC asked them for a job. Bottom line… TIMING… there were 180 applicants, of the final ten… only two were flown into Chicago… for in-person interviews at Gibson’s parent company, Norlin. Den was hired. Joe retired.
Regional Sales Manager Chandler’s area was… all of Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, Southern Michigan, Northern W. Virginia. So most of the Cleveland music stores Dennis frequented briefly… he got to visit at length. When he was calling on the stores… Rep Dennis also got to rock out… doing various and sundry seminars, promotional events. Plus he saw some of his peeps from his past as a music-store-customer… i.e., musical bud, Barry Weinberg (of Mayfield Music), Ed Difiore and of course… Dick Sodja. So a little visit to pay them their “props” was often done by Den after hours, too. (Read: jam). Here’s when that “Lucky” guitar went along… for a show and tell… but no play.
A Few Good Years In Camelot or Working In Your Favorite Guitar’s Company
WHEN… The late 70′s and early ’80s. That’s when Dennis was able to marry his love of music with his business acumen at a-Camelot-of-a job at Gibson Guitar. He went to work in Sales and Marketing for them (or was it really for B.B. King aka Poppa B.B.?)
WHO… Success for B.B. and D.C. came in a handshake from then Gibson President Bob McRann who told Dennis in 5 words, “Great idea, go do it!” That assignment, along with one for Dennis to, “also get B.B.King signed as an endorsee for their Lab amp line”, came about in a very unusual setting. It was while deep sea fishing, amid sharks, 5 hours off the coast of the Panama!
HOW… Dennis-the-salesman came to be Dennis-the-deep-sea-fisher.
All the time he worked for Gibson he had hoped for an audience with the president (so Dennis could discuss his idea for a B.B. King signature production line model). Well, top prize for him was a trip for two to the plush Contadora Island. Upon arriving at the Fantasy Island-like resort, Dennis learned he had won another top perk: Deep-sea fishing with the president of Gibson. Talk about a captured audience. Chances to chat freely came often, what with only 5 guests onboard, the McRanns, the Chandlers and Gibson Vice President Jim Whitehill. It was after they were underway, 5 hours out to sea, that Dennis began to make his case for B.B.King’s guitar, (pardon the pun). There, out in the middle of the ocean came Gibson President McRann’s 5 words of instruction, “Great idea, go do it!” Dennis finally got the go ahead to make happen what he told B.B. he would do, way back in 1965. (Seems to me the number 5 is a lucky one for “Lucille” and family!)
Once back in the USA, Dennis co-coordinated the initial 5 days of endorsement/ R&D meetings. To Cleveland, Ohio came the following 5: Gibson Pres. Bob McRann, V.P. Bruce Bolen, Research & Development director Rendell Wall, district manager Lane Zastrow and Sid Seidenberg (B.B.’s manager).
The first meeting was held backstage after one of B.B.’s concerts at a favorite place of his to play, the Front Row Theater. The second meeting was the next day in B.B.’s hotel suite, with all in attendance. More “design days” followed and voila… WHEN was Lucille born? The guitar’s due date was 1980. (And that’s when B.B. dubbed Dennis “Lucille’s Godfather”).
WHAT was Dennis’ biggest accomplishment at Gibson? He feels it was getting Gibson to make “The B.B.King / Lucille” production line model. For tech geeks, B.B.was also brought into the fold as an endorsee of other Gibson products i.e., Lab amps. Dennis can tell tales of dealing with Dr. Moog to get ready those Lab amps B.B. loved so well. (Too tall tales… err… too technical for this writer).
Pride in a job well done does not compare to the love and encouragement felt for the effort expended for this endeavor. For example, whenever the King of the Blues introduced Dennis as “Lucille’s Godfather… that credit made him smile. But, Dennis was more deeply touched when B.B. introduced him as “A fabulously talented musician whom I call my adopted son ’cause I like to think I raised him” (and for those fifty years, he did).
Thank you, Poppa B.B.
“Why doesn’t Dennis do more in the business end of music?” many ask. Because he could NEVER stop playing music; especially after having heard in his head “choruses of praise”… the kind that comes from having a “close encounter”. It was phrased perfectly by B.B. King’s son, Rev. Robert Edwards, who was among the first to encourage Dennis to “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”. He, like others, witnessed that Dennis, in remission from leukemia, appeared restored… beyond the proficiency he had prior to his illness. It was then that “The Rev”, as B.B. called him, promptly booked Dennis to headline this Blues & Gospel Blues Fest.
Therefore, since his Healing over thirty years ago, Dennis’ indeed grateful to perform wherever, whenever and by whomever invites him to… “Make a Joyful noise”. Hence his diverse itinerary.
Back to ’bout making music while at Gibson… One fond memory for him has to be priceless: Playing in Chicago at the 1979 International Convention of NAMM (aka National Association of Music Merchandisers). There in the “Gibson Guitar Greats Showcase Series” pianist-Dennis was the only keyboardist invited to accompany the following “Guitar Greats” … (in alphabetical order) Bruce Bolen, Larry Carlton, Al DiMeola, Mike Elliott, Herb Ellis, Les Paul, Lee Ritenour, Howard Roberts, and of course, Poppa B.B. King. What a concert. What a memory. No photos needed.
“CHUCK BERRY’s own GIBSON SIGNATURE MODEL GUITAR”.
That’s a headline still rolling around in student-Dennis’ head. To explain the below photo… Den had a dream of doing for the great Chuck Berry (another teacher and musical mentor), what he did for B.B. King. Gibson Guitar contacted Dennis and consultant Chandler was used (and was he ever). A “Chuck Berry Guitar” was in the works. It almost came to be. It was a close call as a prototype was done. But, almost only counts in horseshoes (and hand grenades). Unbeknownst to Dennis, that deal got undone by someone else. Maybe icon Berry will yet get a proper Chuck Berry/ Gibson signature model… like the one pictured here…
September 16, 2015 …. Happy 90th Birthday, BB.!
Liz Chandler, Web Writer aka “Mrs. Dennis”