Uh oh. I think I’m going to get into a lot of trouble for this one.
Tell ya what. Before reading any further, head over to my Chick Riff “The Truth About Beets” and read the narrative (you can skip the long list at the bottom). I figure it should take seven minutes for you to absorb the text, so that gives me time to have a cigarette. I’ll be here when you come back.
The source for pretty much all my blues reviews is my annual blues jag when I set aside an entire week in winter to perform a thorough soul cleansing by listening to nothing but blues. I always begin with Robert Johnson, selecting the rest according to my mood at the time.
This year I decided to shake things up a bit. I still kicked things off with Robert Johnson but limited the follow-up selections to blues artists that I hadn’t reviewed yet. I knew that I didn’t have recordings by some of the artists I had in mind, so on one of my frequent hang-out nights with my parents, I started an A to Z search through my father’s well-ordered vinyl collection. When I got to the B’s, I selected a Big Bill Broonzy album and proceeded directly to the C’s.
Alas, Dad was in the room and was onto me in seconds. “Hey, you skipped right over B.B. King!” Just my luck to have a father with near-perfect eyesight in his early 70s.
“Did I?” I asked innocently in one of the worst acting performances of my career.
“What’s the problem, Sunshine?”
“I don’t know . . . it’s just that B.B. never really floated my boat.”
“Too bad. Well, you’re not leaving here without Live at the Regal and Live at Cook County Jail.”
Faced with the all-or-nothing choice, I caved. I devoted the following evening to listening to both albums and doing some basic research to help me figure out why B.B. King has never really moved me in the way Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and other great blues artists have.
The research conclusively indicated that I was the lone idiot in the crowd. AllMusic referred to B.B. as “the single most important electric guitarist of the last half of the 20th century.” EVERYONE refers to B.B. as “The King of the Blues.” B.B. was the recipient of nearly every honor that can be bestowed upon a human being, including several honorary doctorates, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, induction into every relevant Hall of Fame and fifteen Grammies, most frequently for Best Traditional Blues Album but also for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best Male R&B Instrumental Performance. B.B. has been christened one of the all-time greats by critics and guitarists alike.
In response to this barrage of pro-B.B. information, one of my inner voices (I have several) shouted, “What the hell is the matter with you? Get with the program!” A kinder voice gently suggested that I lay my cards on the table and give voice to my skepticism. Here goes:
- I strongly disagree with AllMusic. The guy who should be honored as “the most important electric guitarist of the last half of the 20th century” is Jimi Hendrix, who was more innovative than B.B. King.
- My skepticism is always triggered whenever EVERYBODY is in full agreement about anything. I sensed that the “B.B. can do no wrong” bunch had elevated a human being to godlike status and chose to ignore his limitations, similar to what the Beatlemaniacs did with the Beatles. Nothing makes me more suspicious than adulation, and having burst more than a few adulation bubbles in my reviews (and catching hell for doing so), I naturally felt some trepidation about reviewing a guy that EVERYBODY but yours truly has placed on a pedestal.
- B.B. King was an engaging performer and a super-nice guy. I sensed that his gregarious personality made him much more acceptable to the vast majority of white people than other African-American blues artists who lacked B.B.’s smoothness and talent for working a crowd.
- There was something about his singing that bugged me—his articulation was unusually clear for a blues guy from the Deep South, with only faint hints of an accent. My brief foray into his influences identified the source of the problem: Ol’ Blue Eyes. “King’s favorite singer was Frank Sinatra. In his autobiography, he spoke about how he was a ‘Sinatra nut’ and how he went to bed every night listening to Sinatra’s classic album In the Wee Small Hours.” (Wikipedia). Sinatra was one of the most articulate singers in popular music history, and playing that particular album every single night while tucking himself in probably left a deep impression in B.B.’s brain. I’ve always found the heavy accents carried by many great blues performers deeply satisfying, in part because they give the music an audible stamp of authenticity. While B.B. was more than capable of delivering the grit, I find his more articulate delivery somewhat disorienting.
- As for his frequently-lauded guitar skills, let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. I will concede that B.B. King was a better guitarist than I will ever be; of the estimated 712 million guitar pickers alive today, I figure I’d rank as the 711,999,999th best guitar player in the world. I mention my guitar mediocrity because more accomplished guitarists will naturally process B.B.’s stylings with more acute perception and greater attention to the finer points than I might. From this listener’s perspective, I think the sounds he wheedled out of Lucille are often stunning in their crispness and simply gorgeous when he applies vibrato. His “conversations” with Lucille, involving call-and-response between vocalist and guitar, are expressive and well-executed. He was one of the best pickers and string-benders of his time, but also quite economical—he rarely drifts into guitar hero excess, providing just what a particular song needs and no more. As a self-taught guitar player, he wasn’t tied to “the right way” to play guitar but came up with his own approach, creating unique tones and effects that even the best guitarists have trouble emulating. However, he did have limitations: he hadn’t studied music all that much and repeated some of his go-to riffs far too often. B.B. isn’t one of my favorite guitarists, but I’ll concede he developed a unique and attractive style that synced well with his band and provided solid support for his vocals.
Well, now that I’ve come this far, I might as well stop pussyfooting around and do the damn review! I chose Live at Cook County Jail (ranked #499 on the Rolling Stone Top 500 list) over Live at the Regal (which started out as #141 but plummeted to #299 in the 2020 revision) largely because I felt there was more of a story there. Live at Cook County Jail was a transformative experience for B.B. that led him to give over fifty free concerts in prisons all over the country, and I wanted to learn why the experience had such an impact on him.
A comparison between Live at Cook County Jail and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison is unavoidable and revealing. The vast majority of the songs on the original Cash album deal directly with crime, miscarriages of justice and prison life. In addition to two songs where Johnny assumes the role of murderer, there are three executions, one in-prison-suicide disguised as an escape attempt and three songs about existence behind bars. That list excludes “Dark as a Dungeon,” which metaphorically compares life in the mines to life in prison, and “I Still Miss Someone,” a song that probably resonated with most of the inmates at Folsom. While he integrated some fun stuff into his set, like his duet with June Carter on “Jackson” and “I’ve Been Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” (one of my all-time favorites), he spends most of the set speaking directly to the prisoners’ experience. When he delivers the stop-time line, “I can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down” in “Cocaine Blues,” the crowd goes wild.
None of the songs on Live at Cook County Jail deal with the reality of the venue or the experience of incarceration. B.B.’s set is pretty much limited to old songs from his extensive catalog, mostly slow blues numbers about relationships with women—women that his audience couldn’t have, given their current circumstances and the fact that Illinois did not allow conjugal visits. In Blues Music in the Sixties: A Story in Black and White, author Ulrich Adelt suggests that the set was designed “to elicit the feeling of nostalgia from the primarily black audience.” Maybe, but a guy who hasn’t had any poontang in a long time is unlikely to appreciate repeated reminders that he has no chance of getting laid anytime soon. Much to my surprise, the frequently obtuse Jon Landau recognized a distinct lack of audience enthusiasm for B.B.’s setlist choices in his review of the album for Rolling Stone: “Particularly striking is the audience’s failure to respond to King’s efforts at recreating past successes. The raucous, good-timey atmosphere of Johnny Cash’s prison albums is replaced by a deathlike detachment on the part of this crowd. King has to cajole, argue, and beg them into responding at some points.”
To be fair, the challenge B.B. King faced in performing for the inmates in Cook County Jail cannot be understated. The band was given a pre-concert tour of the facilities and pianist Ron Levy would later describe the glares of the inmates as “hauntingly hollow,” the direct result of doing time in a facility that earned its reputation as “notorious” through decades of documented horrors. Overcrowding was a constant problem, subject to endless court orders; during one period, death row inmates were housed in the jail along with those imprisoned for minor offenses. Murders and suicides were common occurrences. Beatings were to be expected; one warden was fired in the 70s for beating inmates with his own fists. Most of the inmates couldn’t afford bail so they had to stay in lockup and then were left to rot because the justice system was unable to provide them with a speedy trial. Given the systemic bias built into the American justice system, the vast majority of inmates in Cook County Jail (and throughout the prison system) were then and are now people of color. As this was his first performance behind the gate, we can cut B.B. a little slack for not fully appreciating what he was up against, but it must be acknowledged that he could have learned more about the prison and the prisoners before he created the setlist. The two may be geographically close, but when it comes to vibes, Cook County Jail is about as far from the Regal Theater as you can get.
The album opens with the sound of the band members loosening up. A woman with a voice somewhere between “upstanding civil servant” and “schoolmarm” steps up to the mike to take care of the introductions. “I want to acknowledge the presence of the man that made and named Mr. Winston Moore director, our own beloved Sheriff Woods.” Polite applause is quickly overtaken by boos and laughter. In response, the woman raises her voice, firm in her determination to honor another special guest. “NOW . . . another dear friend of all of yours out there is the Chief Justice of the Criminal Court, Judge Joseph Powers is present.” The booing begins at the mere mention of “Chief Justice” and nearly drowns out the poor woman as she gamely attempts to move forward. At this point, I imagine the band members exchanging eye-raising glances to convey, “Tough crowd.” Still in full retention of her dignity, the woman introduces B.B. as “The King of the Blues,” “The Chairman of the Board of all the blues singers” and “just a fine, warm, human being full of humility.” Within a split-second of her rather formal request, “Would you please come forth, Mr. King,” the band leaps into action.
The first piece is an abbreviated, high-speed cover of Memphis Slim’s “Every Day I Have the Blues,” a song recorded by B.B. in 1955. The band doesn’t seem the least bit nonplussed by crowd reactions in the intro, grabbing the swing of the tune from the get-go and never missing a beat. B.B. enters the fray somewhat modestly, but on his second riff you hear the sweet tone that wowed so many blues guitarists, a calling card that confirms that you’re listening to the one-and-only B.B. King. His energetic vocal reflects a nice balance between grit and clear articulation, and the repetition of “every day I have the blues” forms a partial acknowledgment of the feelings of those behind bars. His guitar solo is typically conservative, without a whole lot of movement up and down the fretboard, but his tone and sweet picking carry the day. Given the pure heat generated by B.B. and the band, I would have expected a roaring response from the crowd, but all I hear is somewhat more-than-polite applause before B.B. cues up the second number.
Composed by jazz critic Leonard Feather and his wife Jane, “How Blue Can You Get?” is a slow blues number custom-made for live audience consumption that was an R&B hit for B.B. back in 1964 and became a staple of his live performances throughout his career. This is all about B.B. the showman, “skilled in dramatic or entertaining presentation, performance, or publicity,” and I think all the p-words in that definition apply to B.B. King.
The lengthy intro (two minutes and forty-five seconds) is a well-designed arrangement filled with dramatic moments of stop-time and soft-loud dynamics. The opening passage shines the spotlight on B.B.’s guitar, backed by rather active piano from Ron Levy with rhythmic support from Wilbert Freeman on bass and Sonny Freeman on drums. The first phase of B.B.’s solo mixes sweet bends with rough chord punctuation; this phase ends with three consecutive rough chords (bam-bam-rest-bam!) signaling a switch to lower volume, a change that triggers some appreciative shouts from the crowd. The next phase begins with a few seconds of Freeman’s bass, and B.B. follows him down the scale to focus on the lower strings; this phase is marked by clean sound with hard picking and very little vibrato. The third phase is announced with a single rough chord, where the loping rhythm becomes a bit stronger and B.B. moves up the fretboard to deliver some sweet bends. In phase four, B.B. does a call-and-response with the horn section as the dynamics build to a sudden cut, a feverish drum roll and stronger applause from the crowd. The next rough chord is held for a few seconds, cueing a brief transition to the vocal. Based on the reaction from the inmates, the intro is certainly a crowd-pleaser, but I find myself getting a bit bored towards the end as B.B.’s riffs become more predictable and limited.
The first two verses tell the classic blues story of an evil, jealous woman making life miserable for her man; B.B.’s delivery here alternates between Wolf and Sinatra. The stop-time punctuated third verse is where the showman shows his stuff, taking on the roles of the man who feels wronged and the evil woman who can’t get no satisfaction, altering his voice accordingly:
I gave you a brand-new FordBut you said, “I want a Cadillac” (tone shift to “snotty, whiny bitch”) I bought you a ten dollar dinner [two Big Mac meals today] And you said, “Thanks for the snack” (tone shift ro “big fucking deal”) I let you live in my penthouse You said, “It was just a shack” (missed oppportunity) I gave you seven children And now you wanna give ’em back (intense male outrage)
The largely male crowd eats it up and at this point in the concert, B.B. has them in the palm of his hand. I feel obliged to note that listening to a song performed live is an in-the-moment experience that leaves little room for reflection. B.B.’s delivery certainly makes for an exciting moment, but if you consider what’s going on in the song, you can only conclude that both parties are assholes. He’s trying to buy her love; she’s okay with that but wants more than Oliver Twist could have imagined in his wildest dreams. He considers his sperm a “gift,” typical of a man who never gave birth to one kid, much less seven, and the last thing he wants is to be burdened with seven young ‘uns because such an occurrence would not only put a huge crimp into his lifestyle but would violate his sacred belief that raising children is woman’s work. In the end, I conclude these two deserve each other and the eternal pain of their rotten coupling.
“Worry, Worry, Worry” features an equally long introduction with none of the excitement of its predecessor. Crowd noise virtually disappears and doesn’t return until the third verse when B.B. takes us out of the song’s doldrums with a low-volume falsetto vocal. The song is interrupted by an extended intermission featuring B.B. King in a role best described as “evangelical marriage counselor.” Always polite in the old-fashioned way, he follows the “ladies first” rule and addresses his opening remarks to the women in the audience (who are comparatively few in number):
Ladies. I said “ladies”Ladies if you got a man And the man don’t do like you think He should ladies you don’t hurt ‘im. I said don’t you hurt him! Man happens to be God’s gift to women!
Oh, oh, oh for fuck’s sake! His advice to the superior sex is to “look him straight in the eye and then you tell him, you tell him, you say, ‘Now baby, you been messing up, but I know you’re gonna do me better.’ And when he look at you as if he wanna know when, Then you tell him, ‘Someday, baby.'” Yeah, that’ll do the trick. He’ll never hit you or fuck another broad as long as he lives. Guaranteed.
B.B. then turns his attention to the fellas in the audience, but because it appears that only a handful are still awake, he has to shout, “I said fellas!” to inspire a still mediocre reaction. His next bit of wisdom starts in a promising fashion but quickly crashes against the kryptonite of nudge-nudge-wink-wink misogyny:
Fellas if you got a woman and theLady don’t do like you think she should Don’t you be goin’ upside of her head now. You know what I’m talkin’ about, don’t you be beatin’ on her. The judgment’s much cheaper if you don’t beat her. And you see if you hurt her you only do one thing I said if you hurt her you only do one thing! You make her a little smarter and she Won’t let you catch her the next time.
Double OFFS! The rest is just gibberish that draws mild laughter, likely because the monologue continues to remind them of the thing they can’t have: sex with a woman. The showman has lost the crowd, but fortunately, we’re only in the middle innings and B.B. has a few more at-bats to turn things around and get the crowd back on his side.
When you’re in a slump, the best thing to do is forget about it and move on, but that’s easier said than done because you never know which slump-breaking method is going to do the trick (yes, I’ve been binging on baseball lately). B.B. attempts to resolve his dilemma by going back to what earned him a spot in the lineup in the first place, informing the audience that “we’re gonna go way back” and play a few songs from his early days. The crowd’s response to this announcement is rather limp, confirming that B.B. has his work cut out for him.
He opens this nostalgic interlude with a medley combining his first big hit “3 O’Clock Blues” with the blues ballad “Darlin’ You Know I Love You.” It’s almost a given that when an artist presents an old favorite to an audience, the crowd responds with appreciation steeped in pleasant memories. There is no such response to “3 O’Clock Blues,” largely due to another problem with the setlist. In David McGee’s BB King: There is Always One More Time, B.B. recalled, “When we got there we found that about 70 percent to 80 percent of the people in there were black or of other minority races and very young, in their teens or early twenties.” In other words, they were too young to recognize a song that hit the charts twenty years ago. I don’t know if it was part of the plan or a response to the lack of enthusiasm, but B.B. shuts the song down before he gets to the third verse. He then introduces a tune from “about 1952 . . . called ‘Darlin’ You Know I Love You,'” receiving no response at all. B.B. delivers most of the song in Sinatra mode, and it doesn’t pack much life until he gets to the guitar solo, which is also truncated. The applause that greets the end of the song is lukewarm at best.
At this juncture, B.B. faced a challenge similar to what Duke Ellington had to deal with at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. The suite that the Duke thought would be the showstopper bombed with the Newport audience, most of whom suspected that Ellington’s best days were behind him anyway. Duke sensed that playing it safe wasn’t going to cut it, so he decided to go for broke with an uptempo experimental piece that the band hadn’t come close to mastering, putting his faith in saxophonist Paul Gonsalves to carry the day. That rendition of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” turned out to be one of the most exciting and cherished performances in jazz history, transforming audience sullenness into absolute pandemonium.
By contrast, B.B. King announced, “Here’s another one” and gave the crowd one more slow blues number from yesteryear. His vocal and instrumental performances on “Sweet Sixteen” are among the best on the album, with his voice conveying genuine passion and his back-and-forth with Lucille is spot-on. I get the sense that B.B. was fully aware that the inmates weren’t all that into what he was doing, but he was locked into his setlist and felt his only path to connection was to give the song all he had to give. The applause at the end does reflect greater respect and appreciation, but I think an uptempo number presented with the same amount of intensity might have had the inmates on their feet and hollering for more.
B.B. declines the opportunity to announce the next song, probably hoping that the guitar intro to “The Thrill Is Gone” will suffice. It does seem to trigger some recognition from the inmates, but not what you’d expect in response to his biggest hit. As B.B.’s performance of the song is virtually flawless (and much improved by the absence of the string section in the original), it becomes painfully obvious that this is one tough crowd and there’s very little B.B. can do to lift their spirits, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how heartfelt his performances. The inmates finally express their appreciation for B.B.’s efforts during the fade of the set’s closing song, “Please Accept My Love,” showering the band with hoots, whistles and extended handclapping.
The spotlight aimed at Cook County Jail during and after the performance did result in some modest improvements to the efficiency of the sentencing process in that particular facility. That may seem like the proverbial drop in the bucket, but B.B. King wasn’t trying to initiate systemic change when he agreed to do the concert. From his perspective, it was all about respecting and recognizing the prisoners as human beings: “I don’t think that when a guy does something wrong he shouldn’t be punished, but if he does it as a human being, he should pay for it as a human being.” (McGee)
That perspective is far more enlightened than the perspective of most Americans and I respect B.B. King for that. But while listening to Live at Cook County Jail increased my admiration for B.B.’s fundamental humanity, the truth is I still prefer blues with greater edginess and unmistakable roughness than B.B. provides.