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#50GreatestConcerts: B.B. King at Cook County Jail, 1970

The inmates booed when the blues artist took the stage, but by the end they were hypnotized

Will Hermes Jul 11, 2017
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B.B. King Photo: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

With a full big band behind him, B.B. King belted burning takes on “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “How Blue Can You Get?” Photo: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

B.B. King was playing a regular club gig on Chicago’s Rush Street in the late Sixties when he was invited to do a show at the local Cook County Jail. “I knew the inmates would enjoy it,” said warden Clarence English. “And that would be something they’d be beholden to us. . . . If you give extra ice cream or let them stay up late at night, [they] don’t fight and destroy each other.”

King’s new manager, Sid Seidenberg – who was helping King score a career resurgence by booking him at venues like the Fillmore West– saw an opportunity. He told King to take the gig, and invited press and a recording engineer for a future live album (Johnny Cash had released the successful At Folsom Prison two years earlier). But what began as a commercial move became something much deeper. “I couldn’t help but feel the oppression,” King said later. “My heart was heavy with feeling for the guys behind bars.” 

With a full big band behind him, King belted burning takes on “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “How Blue Can You Get?” with a fury the loud assembly evidently connected with. The inmates booed when he took the stage, but by the end they were hypnotized. The show was released on 1971’s Live at Cook County Jail, a document of an electric-blues master at the top of his game. “There were tears in people’s eyes,” English recalled. “In mine, too.”

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Click here to check out the entire story in the digital edition of Rolling Stone India. 

Listen to B.B. King’s entire ‘Live at Cook County Jail’ album below:

 

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