By on May 27, 2015

Riley B. King, a blues musician who starred in a commercial launching the 2015 Toyota Corolla last year, passed away at the age of 89 last week in Las Vegas.

Wouldn’t it be terrible if that’s the way car enthusiasts looked at the world, solely through headlight shaped lenses, with things outside the automotive sphere only mattering when they interact somehow with cars?

Riley King was of course better known as B.B. King, a foundational player in the pantheon of electric guitarists, one of the “three kings” of the blues, along with Freddie and Albert. A star on the blues circuit since 1950s “3 O’Clock Blues”, King was an indefatigable performer, performing hundreds of gigs a year. He dressed the blues up in a suit and, after Michael Bloomfield encouraged rock impresario Bill Graham to book his mentor King and other black bluesmasters into his Fillmore auditoriums in the late 1960s, B.B.’s music was exposed to a new and much larger audience. That led to his huge crossover hit “The Thrill Is Gone” (producer Bill Szymczyk‘s shimmering strings added to King’s uptown version of the blues). Regularly performing well into his 80s, the suit eventually became a tuxedo and he became the ambassador to the world for America’s indigenous art form.

As it happens, King’s last public appearance was the Toyota commercial that started airing last October after King withdrew from what turned out to be his final tour that month due to exhaustion and dehydration. The ad, part of the ’15 Camry launch’s ‘One Bold Choice Leads to Another’ ad campaign, was titled “Guitar”. It portrayed a young woman who took a risk at a storage auction and ended up with one of King’s famous “Lucille” Gibson semi-hollowbody electric guitars. The ad shows her driving her Camry to meet King backstage, where he was supposedly reunited with his guitar, which he autographed for her.

B.B. King's famous Lucille

Also, as it happens, just a short while ago I was actually planning on writing about the B.B. King Camry commercial. At the Chicago Auto Show in February, Toyota’s stand had a display case devoted to that commercial, complete with a Gibson “Lucille” and the brocade tuxedo jacket King wore in the commercial. I think guitars are pretty cool, so I took a few photos as best as I could (I don’t have a polarized filter so it was tough avoiding reflections from the display case glass). I was kind of surprised the guitar in the display wasn’t the actual guitar from the commercial. That guitar had a “burst” finish, while the one in the display case was a production black Gibson 65th Anniversary edition ES-355 Lucille in black. The plaque on the case said it was “B.B. King’s Gibson Guitar, Lucille”, but I’m at least a little bit skeptical it was ever Mr. King’s personal instrument. More likely it was loaned from Gibson. The brocade tuxedo jacket in the display, however, was the actual one King wore in the commercial, similar to the one he was buried in, a signature element to his later stage appearances.

“I gave you a brand new Ford, but you said ‘I want a Cadillac.'” When was the last time you heard a blues song about a Toyota?

When I first saw the ad, I wondered if it was based on a true story. Real celebrities appear in commercials with fictional themes all the time. Intrigued, though, by the combination of the actual jacket and a quasi faux Lucille, I found out that it was based on a true story. Toyota’s ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, and the ad’s producers, Smuggler, may have plagiarized the plot.

By now you may have heard how B.B. King came to name his guitars Lucille – about a fire in a juke joint, B.B. rushing in to save his guitar, later finding out the fire started with a fight over a woman named Lucille. He told other stories about his Lucilles in his act. This being a car site, one of the stories King told about Lucille was about how the guitar saved his life by keeping his car from crushing him after he flipped it (not likely to have happened in actuality because one of the semi-hollowbody Gibsons that King preferred would likely have been crushed itself). I said guitars and Lucilles, because King used a number of guitars in his career and more than one was inlaied with the name Lucille. One of those was ES-355 prototype for a commemorative production Lucille made by Gibson’s custom shop to be presented to King on his 80th birthday in 2005. King used it in performances until 2009, when it was stolen from his home in Las Vegas.

One of the sayings attributed to B.B. King is “a guitar can’t play the blues if it ain’t been in a pawn shop,” reflecting the economic tribulations of working musicians. Eric Dahl is a guitar player and collector who had been checking out pawn shop guitars for decades before coming across a Gibson with “Lucille” on the headstock in a Las Vegas pawn shop in 2009. As indicated above, Gibson made production versions of the 80th birthday Lucille, so the pawn shop and Dahl likely had no way of knowing that it was stolen. Dahl paid $2,161.99, slightly under market for a production Lucille (one of King’s personal ES-335 Lucille’s is currently advertised at $55,000).

Inspecting the guitar, Dahl found the word “prototype” and researching its provenance led him to Gibson verifying that it was the first prototype for the commemorative 80th birthday Lucille, the same guitar that King played in concert with for years. In November 2009, Dahl arranged to met with King personally and agreed to return the guitar to its rightful owner without compensation. It was, after all, stolen from King. In appreciation, King had arranged for Gibson to provide Dahl with his own Gibson Lucille, which King autographed and presented to the guitar collector. While not quite as valuable as one of King’s personal Lucilles, King’s gift to Dahl has it’s own unique provenance and value.

Dahl didn’t just get a very cool collectible guitar with unmatched provenance out of the story. He also wrote a book about the guitars King had used called B.B. King’s Lucille and the Loves Before Her. Three of the copyrighted book’s chapters tell the story of the stolen and returned Lucille.

After the Corolla commercials started airing, Dahl filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court over copyright infringement, saying that Gibson personnel who were consulted by Toyota and the ad’s producers were aware of his book and those same Gibson employees later confirmed the commercial was based on the account in Dahl’s book.

Toyota filed a motion to dismiss arguing Dahl was suing over an uncopyrightable idea rather than the author’s expression of that idea. “Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, methods of operation, and/or any expression that is not original to the author,” the automaker’s lawyers wrote in the motion.

“Fatal to his claim, Mr. Dahl conflates the concept of the expression of the story (protectable) with the basic idea of the story (not protectable). The concept of a musician who loses a musical instrument which is later found and returned is not unique to plaintiff nor can he claim copyright protection over all such stories. Nor does the fact that the musician in both stories is Mr. King change that result; as a matter of law, plaintiff must point to the expression of his own story in the ad, not some common facts, to make out a claim,” Toyota argued.

In March of this year, U.S. District Judge James Mahan disagreed, saying that while a general idea cannot be copyrighted, the unique manner in which it is expressed can be protected. “Defendants misapply this rule of law to plaintiff’s complaint. Although general themes and ideas are not copyrightable, parallels to more specific elements of a particular expression are protected,” the federal judge ruled in his opinion. Judge Mahan further ruled that Dahl “adequately alleges similarities between the plot, characters and sequence of events, among other factors, of the two works” and allowed the case to proceed, also denying Toyota’s motion to not have to cover Dahl’s legal expenses in case he wins.

B.B. King was not a party to the lawsuit, so that’s one issue his estate won’t have to resolve. Eleven of King’s 15 children survived him and some are fighting with King’s longtime business manager over control of his assets. When the Toyota commercial was shot, King was an old man who had told a story or two about his guitars, some of them not completely true, and he likely figured it was just another good story and a good paycheck. My guess is Toyota was also not the worst actor here, but rather the party with the deepest pockets. Toyota is currently displaying a Spongebob Squarepants Sienna minivan at comic cons and auto shows. They’re obviously not adverse to licensing deals. Hiring King to do the ad probably wasn’t cheap either. Licensing and crediting Dahl’s story would likely have been less expensive than King’s fees. Most likely, if the topic of copyright infringement came up, Toyota was probably reassured by someone (Saatchi & Saatchi, the ad agency’s legal staff, or Toyota’s own lawyers, or a combination of the above) that the story was far enough removed from Dahl’s as to have been in the public domain.

I don’t know if B.B. King ever drove a Toyota Corolla. Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces were more his style (King started out sharecropping which may also explain his fondness for the Chevy El Camino), but regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, B.B. King sure knew how to play the blues.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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4 Comments on “Toyota Pitchman Riley B. King Passes Away at 89...”

  • avatar

    What the heck does a commercial that is a play on “storage wars” have to do with a real life “pawn stars”? They are completely different fake reality shows.

    • 0 avatar

      All of those “reality” tv shows, I call them “treasure hunts”, whether it’s the two pawn shop shows, American Pickers, the show about that toy collector/dealer, or others of the ilk, are all variations on the same themes. I’d say that Antiques Roadshow on PBS has been an influence on all of those shows. While there isn’t any dickering or auction bidding, an essential ingredient in those tv shows, on ARS, that show is all about establishing market value.

      Storage Wars and Hardcore Pawn are more closely related than you think.

      In any case, a judge has said that Dahl’s case can proceed on its merits. Regardless of the merits of his case, I think he’s lucky that he was presented with a great opportunity to promote his book on King’s guitars.

      I wonder if it looks like the ruling will go in his favor if the lawyers on the other side will try to mitigate any damages assessed by saying that because of the commercial more people know about his book.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Thank you for this post, and I don’t care if it’s only tangentially related to cars. If Toyota had done the right thing, it would have paid for a release from Dahl. I’m sure they’ll spend more on legal fees than would have satisfied him . . . at least in the beginning. I first heard “How Blue Can You Get?” when someone spun BB’s “Live in Cook County Jail” record, not long after it was released in 1970, IIRC. King’s performance of that tune, in front of an audience of convicts, has to be heard.

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