Riley B. King was born in 1925 on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi. He was taught at a young age by his pastor, Rev. Archie Fair, how to play guitar. King first performed in gospel groups until deciding to come to Memphis, Tennessee. Once he got to Memphis he hung around for a while with his cousin, Bukka White, a blues musician who had been recording since 1930.
King saw how much more lucrative being a blues musician was to being a church musician. After gaining a bit of local fame by performing on the radio in West Memphis, Arkansas, King was given a ten minute spot on WDIA in Memphis, the first US radio station which targeted black listeners. King soon became a disc jockey at WDIA and was nicknamed “The Beale Street Blues Boy” which was quickly shortened to “Blues Boy” King or even shorter, B.B. King.
Throughout the 1950’s King and his band toured up to 300 dates a year and he had many hits on the R&B charts throughout the decade. During that time he gained a huge following amongst fans of the blues and was well respected amongst his fellow musicians. However, he did not have much mainstream notoriety until 1969.
It wasn’t until that year that he appeared on national TV for the first time when he performed on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” He also joined The Rolling Stones on their American Tour in 1969 which coincided with the release of his album Completely Well.
The album became an immediate hit, mostly due to the popularity of the track “The Thrill is Gone” which became one of the few traditional blues songs to break the Top 40. In 1970, King would then go on to win a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal for that song.
It was 1970 and B.B. King’s career was hotter than it had ever been.
On September 10, 1970 B.B. King and his band took to the stage in the yard of Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois. They had been invited to perform by the jail’s warden, Winston Moore.
Moore had been given what some thought was an impossible task, clean up the corruption in Cook County Jail. Ebony magazine had called Cook County Jail, “The World’s Worst Jail.” Illegal drugs and booze were openly traded amongst inmates and guards, rape and murder were far from uncommon, and the biggest problem was that none of the people that were in charge seemed to care about cleaning up the system. The prison officials had literally put the inmates in charge of the asylum as they had developed the “barn boss” system which gave dictatorial powers to certain inmates to hold over their fellow prisoners.
Moore was an unlikely choice as the new warden. He was a psychologist who had no experience in or formal training that would normally qualify someone for the job as warden, plus he was an African American. When he took over the job, he became the first African American warden in the United States. Immediately he went headlong into cleaning up the prison, ending the “barn boss” system, confiscating all drugs and weapons (over 200 weapons were removed from the prison) and cracking down on the violence.
According to Winston Moore’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune, it was actually his connection to a mobster that led to B.B. King coming to perform at the prison.
Moore had used his influence to allow incarcerated mob boss Sam Giancana to attend his mother’s funeral. Giancana wanted to repay the favor to Moore, and during an idle conversation with Giancana’s lawyer Moore mentioned that he wanted to bring in musical acts to perform for the inmates as a form of positive reinforcement. Moore was wanting to experiment with the concerts hoping that the inmates would be on their best behavior because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t get to see the concert. Giancana somehow had connections within the music industry, and Moore now had access to book some major acts and over the next few years Aretha Franklin, Liza Minnelli, and of course B.B. King all performed at Cook County Jail.
The Album Cover:
The title Live in Cook County Jail is seemingly a straightforward title. But there is something interesting about the preposition “in.” It is inevitable to compare Live in Cook County Jail to Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin.
But I do think that the prepositions are interesting here. The “at” in Johnny Cash’s titles implies that this is Johnny Cash just coming to perform at this location just like he would be performing “at” the Grand Ole Opry. But this is B.B. King “in” Cook County Jail. You could almost take it as tough King is doing time there and has a guitar and someone just happened to record this inmate playing.
The front cover is made to look like heavy denim, the kind that the prisoners would wear.
The lettering is a perfect facsimile of the spray paint stenciling, the kind that would be used for the inmates’ numbers.
Going back to the comparison with Johnny Cash’s Albums, At Folsom Prison has a below chin shot of a sweaty Johnny Cash, which is a great shot, but technically could be from any concert. That is much the same with At San Quentin, which shows a shot of Cash from behind with a spotlight obscuring everything else. Again, it’s a great album cover, but there is nothing about it which shows that it is a concert in a prison. On the other hand, the picture of B.B. King on Live in Cook County Jail shows him in the throes of a passionate guitar solo in front of a wall with bars on the windows. Even without reading the title, you would know from the picture that this is a concert being performed at a prison.
The back cover has a picture taken from behind King showing the crowd of inmates sitting on the ground with ropes wrangling the inmates into two groups.
The most interesting part of the back cover is a short essay written by Geoffrey Harding, who I presume is one of the inmates as it is signed “Geoffrey Harding and 2,117.” It is one of the most informative essays I’ve ever read on an album cover. It starts out “Jail, very simple, is one helluva place to be.” Harding then talks about the corruption in the Cook County Illinois Prison system. He then likens the struggle that Warden Moore had in taking control of the prison system to B.B. King’s struggle to make it to the top of the music business after performing for over 20 years. Harding also feels that the story of B.B. King coming to perform at Cook County Jail is proof that Moore was successful in cleaning up the prison system. The fact that just two years earlier if there were 2,117 inmates in one place, there no doubt would have been a riot, and now 2,117 inmates politely sit, with minimal security, with only a rope to keep them from rushing the stage. The only time the inmates got rowdy was when they gave B.B. a standing ovation at the end of the concert.
As an aside, I want to point out the great album cover art is by Woody Woodward, who was the art director for Pacific Jazz Records in the 1950’s and 60’s and was nominated for three Grammys for art direction, including one for an album by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band the year Live in Cook County Jail came out.
But he lost to B.B. King’s other album from that year, Indianola Mississippi Seeds, which I have to admit was really cool.
I am reviewing the vinyl record version of Live in Cook County Jail, released in 1971.
(Youtube doesn’t have track by track clips of this album, but someone has uploaded a part of Side One but Side Two looks like it was taken down. However, there is a link to “The Thrill is Gone” which appears on Side Two.)
The album starts with a woman introducing the Sheriff and Judge of the Criminal Court, who receive an unsurprising chorus of boos. She introduces B.B. King as “The King of the Blues.” King jumps right into “Every Day I have the Blues.” I’m not sure if it is clipped or he just played a sample, but it is less than 2 minutes long.
That flows into “How Blue Can You Get.” It has an amazing guitar solo on his guitar, Lucille, at the beginning, segueing into the slow tempo singing part. This is where we get the first bit of audience interaction when B.B. gets to the call and response segment. Every time I hear “How Blue Can You Get” the first thing that pops in my head is that song from The Cable Guy with the ever pithy title “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods from 1996 which sampled B.B.’s version of the song.
“Worry, Worry, Worry” opens with a lengthy, yet forgettable B.B. King signature-styled guitar solo. It has a long spoken word part. This song has the line “Man is God’s gift to woman” which gets a loud applause from the male contingency. This segment is funny, but at first I was confused as to who exactly is in the crowd since King also talks to the ladies in the audience. After doing a little research, I found out that there were apparently about 200 female inmates in attendance. It kind of surprises me that they would have the men and women there together.
Here is where the comparison to Johnny Cash’s albums pop up again. As B.B.’s interaction is not any different than it would be with any audience, asking the men about loving their wives, asking the women if they take care of their men. It just isn’t the kind of interaction you’d expect with inmates, Cash’s records have the interaction with the audience that are specific to prison life and many of his songs reference being in prison and committing crimes. That’s not to say that blues love songs don’t relate to inmates, but when you are listening to an album recorded in a prison you expect that gimmick to flow through the whole album.
At first I think that B.B. is going to answer my question as Side Two begins, he mentions that he played the first half of the set just like he would at any gig. So I figure that we’d get more references to prison life on side two, but actually he says that he’s going to sing more of his older songs. He starts with a medley of “3 O’Clock Blues/ Darlin’ You Know I Love You.” The latter is a blues ballad which in my opinion is not the best style for B.B. He even uses a different signing voice for that song.
He then gives a bit of a middling performance of another one of his earlier hits, “Sweet Sixteen,” which was requested by someone in the crowd. I have to admit that before writing this review, I really was not aware that B.B. King’s national recognition didn’t come until the late 1960’s. Hearing someone request one of his older songs makes me interested to know the demographics of the audience. My assumption is that the black contingency would have been much more knowledgeable about King’s older hits than the white inmates.
I wonder how many in the crowd only knew B.B. as “The Thrill is Gone” guy? How many didn’t know who he was at all? Those long time fans of B.B. King probably felt like how I feel about those people who are fans of Zach Galifianakis as “The Hangover guy.” I had been a fan of his standup for about ten years before The Hangover came out. Yes, you agree with them that they are great, but you just don’t think they really understand the full reason why they are great.
You can hear the energy pick up with the audience when he segues into his biggest hit “The Thrill is Gone.” This is probably the best performance on the record. If you think that “The Thrill is Gone” is always great no matter what, then you’ve probably never heard the version with Pavarotti wailing on it. King’s guitar playing is the best part of it, as he uses his signature use of string bending and shimmering vibrato. As the solo goes on, it starts to get pretty funky reminding me a bit of Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic.
An obvious edit starts the last track where King says he’d like to perform again if they’d like to have him back, which is greeted with applause. B.B. closes with “Please Accept My Love,” another 50’s sounding ballad which is pretty short and doesn’t add up to much.
It quickly cuts to exit music and then to the woman that did the introductions telling the crowd to give a round of applause, and while I’m sure the audience cheered, it really sounded like they sweetened the reaction as it sounds more like a stadium cheering and not 2,000 people sitting in the open air. It sounds nothing like any of the other reactions during the performance. Kinda odd.
Ultimately the album is pretty good performance, but it really could’ve been done anywhere. Other than a couple of “song recognition” applause reactions and a bit of laughter during “Worry, Worry, Worry,” you really don’t hear the crowd at all. I don’t think it’s amongst the best live performances that even I’ve personally heard from B.B. King. I am interested to know how long the whole performance was and what exactly was edited out for the record. There are definite edits on the album and there may be more interaction with the inmates in there, but I can’t judge it based on what is not there.
My take on Rolling Stone’s take:
RS: “King was enjoying a career renaissance when he played this Chicago jail in 1970. He won over the hostile prisoners with definitive versions of his blues standards and his crossover hit “The Thrill Is Gone.””
I really hate to give a slightly negative review to an album by one of the legends of music, (especially someone that is very important to my hometown) but every album comes with expectations and this album just didn’t live up to my expectations. Perhaps that is the wrong way to review an album, but part of the enjoyment of a live album is hearing the crowd’s interaction. It is not only the crowd, but the music is surprisingly lackluster for a B.B. King album. Perhaps that can be attributed to the sound acoustics of playing outside in a non-performance area or it could be due to editing. Still all of those things are part of what makes up an album.
I doubt that B.B. King could record a bad live set, but this is not a great live set and when picking the 500 greatest albums, a “good” live record is not going to be within the best 500 albums I’ve heard. The cover art elevates the rating of the album and the fact that despite the issues I have with the album, it is still B.B. FREAKIN’ King playing music and doing so at the point in which he was at his most popular.
3 Stars out of 5, mild recommendation.
My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:
2. B.B. King-Live in Cook County Jail