Album of the Week: B.B. King’s Live in Cook County Jail (1971)

I was a pretentious music nerd as a young age, collecting records and correcting those who got their facts wrong by the start of high school. This got me in the most trouble when my French teacher made an aside about “Stand By Me” being a great song by B.B. King. I quickly corrected her – “Stand By Me” is, of course, by Ben E. King – so rudely that she kicked me out into the hallway in front of the entire class.

Hopefully my behavior is less contemptible now, but for years this was my only real knowledge of B.B. King – he was the guy who didn’t make “Stand By Me”. Well, what did he do? Blues, presumably. But the only CD of his I frequently saw in stores and my stepdad’s collection was 2000’s Riding with the King, an album whose cover art practically screams “We, the makers of this album, are over 50 years old, and to enjoy it you should be too.” Riding with the King is probably his most successful album, but if this were that Drake meme format I would wave it away with one hand and then point happily to Live in Cook County Jail. This shit is smokin’ hot.

Yes, Johnny Cash did it first, with At Folsom Prison for Columbia almost three years earlier. That album was a hit, and presumably encouraged ABC to get excited about the opportunity to record King doing the very same. As the story goes, one (or more) of the wardens at Cook County Jail in Chicago reached out to King in 1970 and the performance was arranged in September. Cook County was not the place you wanted to be and I’m sure it still isn’t. Today it has one of the largest inmate populations in America at about 10,000 (In 1970 the inmate population was closer to 2000) and it has a nasty history of racism, violence and injustice. You couldn’t get me do a week’s time there if I knew Frank Ocean and the ghost of Jerry Garcia were playing a double-header for the inmates. Before his performance King walked around the site before the show and, according to The Independent, “his experience at the jail affected him profoundly.” I’m sure his empathy for the inmates inspired him to give them a damn good show, and today it remains a treat for us listeners.

After a staff member’s introduction in which the wardens are hilariously booed by the inmates, King starts off with the uptempo “Everyday I Have the Blues”. He was reportedly nervous, which may explain why this track is so fast. Thankfully, things slow down after that and we get into the best run of the album. “How Blue Can You Get?” and “Worry, Worry, Worry” are both absolute show-stoppers. King somehow manages to play the role of tortured blues singer, electric guitar god and standup comedian all at once. Listen to the pain in his voice when he cries “I gave you seven children / And now you wanna give ’em back!” That’s the blues, baby! On both tracks, he shreds his Gibson “Lucille” for a few minutes and then switches into master storyteller mode. The encouragement of the crowd’s hollers, laughter and applause really fuels both King and the backing band. It’s pure magic.

On the second side King slides into a more relaxed groove where he plays some older hits because, in his words, “I think a lot of the things we let go sometimes are the things we cherish most later on.” You might not want to cover “Sweet Sixteen” today, but it’s a crowd favorite here and a late highlight of the set. He gets cookin’ towards the end of his big hit “The Thrill Is Gone” as well. The last track, “Please Accept My Love”, cuts quickly to an end-of-set fanfare, and I have to imagine that some of the set was edited for album release. It would be fun if we could get an unabridged version like At Folsom Prison got in 2008. As it stands though, Live at Cook County Jail is a concise and remarkable recording.

Listen to Live at Cook County Jail here.

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