Blues Bytes


June 2018

B.B. King
Live in Cook County Jail

BB King

When I was a fledgling blues fan back in the early/mid ’80s, the very first B.B. King album I bought was a cassette of Live In Cook County Jail (MCA/Universal). I’m not sure why I decided on this particular B.B. King release. It’s been about 35 years ago and some days I do well to remember my way to work, but I think it was mainly because I knew most of the songs listed on the back cover.

Upon listening for the first time, it was quite a surprise because I got to not only hear B.B. King’s music in a raw, unvarnished setting, but I also got a good glimpse of B.B. King the performer. A couple of weeks ago I visited the B.B. King Museum at Indianola for the third time, and while in the adjoining gift shop I came across a CD copy of Live In Cook County Jail. It had been a number of years since I’d actually listened to it, so I picked up a copy to see if I would still enjoy it as much as I did in those early years of being a blues fan.

A couple of years before King’s 1970 performance, the Cook County Jail was described as a “jungle” by the Illinois Crime Commission and a prison reform group who had recently investigated the facility. There was an “everything goes” mindset at the jail and it was rife with illegal activities: bribery, rape, murder, drugs and liquor smuggled in and traded, etc., all under the watchful eye of the prison officials.

In March of 1968 a black psychologist named Winston Moore was appointed warden, despite a complete lack of formal training for the position. He was the first African American warden in the U.S., and he plunged headlong into the process of cleaning up the prison, confiscating drugs, alcohol, weapons (over 200) and ending the “barn boss” system, which had given dictatorial powers to the inmates over their respective areas. It took Moore a couple of years to establish his position, but establish it he did, or otherwise there probably never would have been an opportunity for B.B. King to perform in Cook County Jail in front of 2,117 inmates.

After the brief introductions, where listeners will hear the inmates roundly boo the introduced sheriff and chief justice of the criminal court, King and his band (John Browning – trumpet, Louis Hubert – tenor sax, Booker Walker – alto sax, Ron Levy – piano, Wilbert Freeman – bass, and Sonny Freeman – drums) launch right into a rapid-paced “Every Day I Have The Blues” to get the blood flowing. They follow up with the crowd favorite, “How Blue Can you Get.” King really does a masterful job with Lucille on the intro, really cutting loose for nearly three minutes of the five-minute song, and the crowd is eating out of his hand by the time he goes into the familiar “I Bought You A Brand New Ford….” verse.

Another favorite, “Worry, Worry,” showcases B.B. the showman as he gives a lengthy monologue on men, women, and love, which is interesting given the environment in which he is performing, but it seems to be effective by the response of the audience. From there, King tears into a six-minute medley incorporating some of his early hits: “3 O’Clock Blues and “Darlin’ You Know I Love You,” then moving into “Sweet Sixteen.” The crowd really eats up this trio of songs and King seems to relish playing them, giving Lucille plenty of solo space in the process.

At the time of the performance King had invaded the record charts with his incredible version of Roy Hawkins' “The Thrill Is Gone,” and doubtlessly, there were a few fans there who were only familiar with that song. To these ears this is one of the best versions of the song that King recorded, taken at a slower, funkier pace and with a very different guitar run midway through along that same line which is a real highlight. The set then closes with another old favorite, “Please Accept My Love,” where King proved that he was also one of the blues’ greatest singers.

Live At The Regal has long been recognized as the greatest live B.B. King recording, and there’s even some support for Blues is King and Live In Japan, but personally I would put Live In Cook County Jail slightly above the latter two as a sentimental favorite for King’s stage presence, his vocals, and of course, Lucille.

--- Graham Clarke




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