The turn of the 1970s was a fertile period for King, who had hooked up with …Cook County producer Bill Szymczyk to release a string of recordings that saw him tentatively branching out into new territory. They included the breakout hit single The Thrill Has Gone and the Indianola Mississippi Seeds album, which King ranked as a personal favourite among his recordings. Recording his next album in a prison may not have seemed a logical progression, but the success of Johnny Cash’s 1968 At Folsom Prison and 1969’s At San Quentin had set the precedent, and King’s favourite singer, Frank Sinatra, had also played to crowd of inmates.
So when officials at the Cook County Jail approached King after a concert to play his hometown facility, King accepted. His label, ABC, urged him to record the show and bring the press along with him – racial inequality and abuse in the prison system was a controversial topic and Cook County was one of the USA’s most notorious prisons, referred to as a ‘jungle’ in a recent investigation. These tensions were reflected in the setup: after his band had toured the facility, King took to a small stage in the prison courtyard in front of 2,117 mostly male prisoners, who were required to stay seated or could dance at the back of the yard. Ex-boxers were hired as extra security and the crowd was urged to stay quiet.
King and his six-piece band were recorded using a hired mobile studio. Warden Clarence Richard English recalled to Crain’s Chicago Business: “There were tears in people’s eyes. In mine, too… [BB King] wanted to do something for these guys. He wanted to help guys with problems.” BB King biographer Sebastian Danchin said of the performance: “The prisoners saw King’s visit as an all-too-rare recognition of their humanity.” Continue reading from Guitar.com
Recorded on a hot day in the fall of 1970, the setting was the yard at Cook County Jail. As King plugged in his famous guitar Lucille, around 2,000 inmates began cheering and jeering. The jeers weren’t for King, but the Sheriff and Chief Judge at the time. This was back when Cook County was called ‘the world’s worst jail.’
Winston Moore, the country’s first African American warden, was brought in a couple years earlier to institute reforms. In his autobiography, King writes that it was Moore’s idea for him to perform at the jail. Ron Levy was an 18-year-old keyboardist touring with King’s band then. “At first it was kind of exciting,” remembered Levy. “[But] once those iron doors slammed behind you it was like ‘oh man.’ I had reservations about our decisions.” However, once the music started, he said all their fears fell away. Levy said the band played lots of jails and prisons back then — for a good reason.
“If anybody had the blues, it was those people incarcerated. And B.B. really felt compassion for these guys,” said Levy. “And let’s face it, a lot of the people who are incarcerated, they were in his audience at one point or another.”
When it was released the next year, “Live in Cook County Jail” topped the R&B charts for three straight weeks. Rolling Stone magazine includes it in their list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. But for Ron Levy, King’s legacy isn’t about record sales or charts.
“People don’t realize B.B. King was much more than just a musician and entertainer. He’s a human being, a humanitarian. He cared,” said Levy. “He’s one of the really good guys. There aren’t many like him in history. He’s not just the king of the blues. He’s one of the kings of humanity.” Continue reading from WBEZ