Live in Cook County Jail: RIP BB King



Last week’s sad passing of the great BB King brought me to rediscover my favourite album of his. I don’t proclaim to be a blues expert, and I certainly haven’t heard all of the 43 studio and 16 live albums King recorded since 1956 but this one is my favourite.

Invited by Chicago’s infamous Cook County Jail to play for the inmates, BB King performed in the exercise yard on September 10 1970. Security was at a minimum – the women sat at the front, the men were in a roped off section to one side – and inmates had to stay seated (those who wanted to dance had to stand at the back). Only the death row prisoners remained incarcerated, but they were allowed to listen through slightly open windows.

The concert was an experiment by the jail director Winston Moore who had taken control of the jail two years before when it was known as the “world’s worst jail”. Moore was trying to oust the so called “barn bosses”; jail guard lieutenants who kept a heavy-handed rule on the inmates using all means necessary (ie. beatings and the occasional use of a rifle). He wanted to offer the convicts a reward and the chance to show that they could behave themselves. They did.

He had a tight band and BB, with his trusty Gibson 335 named “Lucille”, were on top form on that hot September afternoon. Pick of the tracks for me is his version of probably one his most famous songs “The Thrill Is Gone”. Whilst the much celebrated studio version with it’s sumptuous strings saunters along nicely, King constantly keeps his band on their toes; tinkering with the tempo and changing the dynamics. A constant throughout is his throaty, mournful wail of a voice and his distinctive wrist-wrenching vibrato as he extracts the maximum blues from Lucille.

RIP Blues Boy.

Leon Wilson


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