The intensity of the king of the blues
In 1970, after a performance at Mister Kelly's, one of Chicago's best nightclubs, the warden of Chicago's Cook County Prison approached B.B. King to ask him to perform at the prison. He accepted and his record company decided to record him, since concerts in prisons had become fashionable after Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison.
The performance took place on September 10, 1970, but before the show, King and his band - Ron Levy on piano, John Browning on trumpet, Louis Hubert on tenor saxophone, Brooke Walker on alto saxophone, Wilbert Freeman on bass, and Sonny Freeman on drums - had the opportunity to visit the prison. That was depressing because, despite it being a ‘special day’, everyone could see that the living conditions were pretty miserable. That first impression would help the great blues master reach an incredible intensity in his playing that day.
Anyone who needs proof of why B.B. King is the greatest blues guitarist of all time need only listen to the intro of How Blue Can You Get? with a soul-purifying solo. It's impossible to think of everything that could have been going through the minds of those 2,117 prisoners who lived in the worst possible conditions and to whom paradise appeared in the form of King’s guitar notes. It's almost three minutes until his deep voice enters, which seems to contain centuries of wisdom and the lament of all his enslaved ancestors.
Worry, Worry, Worry goes beyond nine minutes - but it could have lasted another 20 and it wouldn't have bored. It's clear that King is genuinely moved by the plight of his audience and he gives his best; his Lucille from that era, a Gibson ES-355, plugged into a Fender Twin, has an even brighter and more fiery tone than that of the mythical Live At The Regal.
The second side opens with King speaking to the inmates, then suddenly goes quiet as he hits five notes on Lucille before continuing to speak, and there's more feeling and expressiveness in those five notes than in the entire discography of most of his impersonators. He then starts with one of his old hits, 3 O'Clock Blues, which he ties in with Darlin' You Know I Love You. Then it's time for another of his all-time great classics, Sweet Sixteen; again it's amazing how his guitar burns.
Then comes the only time King takes on his more contemporary repertoire of that time. But even after only a year of recording it was impossible for B.B. King not to play The Thrill Is Gone in his concerts. The version that appears here is raw and naked, obviously once the string arrangement is gone, but the strength of his voice and the passion he puts into caressing Lucille is simply fantastic. For the finale he returns with another of the songs he recorded in the late 50's, Please Accept My Love, which brings his historic performance to a close.
What had begun as a casual affair, and which his company took advantage of to record a live album, became a lifelong commitment for King. The guitarist had been outraged by the living conditions of the prisoners and by the fact that more than three-quarters of the inmates were black or other minorities. That anger translated into the intensity of his performance, but he did not stop there and King would go on to perform more than 50 free concerts in other prisons during his lifetime, in addition to creating the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation. King's greatest triumph was not that - not even the release of an album that can rival Live At The Regal as the best of his career -; his greatest triumph is that his performance in Cook County brought the press there and led to the reformation of the entire prison.