Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out-of-focus visuals] when you could pore over an album's liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits…
Note by note, notation by notation, the thrill is all over the place on the ever-emotive and blazing Live in Cook County Jail, B.B. King's 1971 blues growler.
And such an unassuming start, too. “Would you please come forth, Mr. King?” B.B. is nonchalantly introduced before he launches into a fiery “Every Day I Have The Blues” and a mother lode of rock solid and rollicking concert versions of standalone blues classics and medleys before 2,117 inmates. Similarly, the liner notes — before they move on to the entwined historical, social, and musical implications of B.B. King and the Cook County Jail — begin with a no-nonsense tip-of-the-iceberg understatement: “Jail, very simply, is one helleva place to be.”
After remarking upon previous problems in the prison's violence, notoriety, and scandal in which out-of-control “rape, bribery, and murder were the bill of fare,” the commentary, generously credited amongst “Geoffrey Harding and 2,117,” touches upon the trials and tribulations faced in 1968 by the new reform Warden, black psychologist Winston E. Moore:
- The first day on the job he moved out three refrigerators from Mafia-occupied cells, collected over 200 weapons from the inmates and confiscated an undetermined amount of drugs. For six months Moore and his staff were physically challenged by the inmates. The “barn boss” system, the brainchild of a former Deputy Warden, had given dictatorial powers to the inmates whose cunning and viciousness rendered them leaders of their tiers. The “barn bosses” did not relinquish their power easily — not even to the new Warden.
For a year, as Harding summarizes it, Moore wages his battles on several fronts, including stand-offs with the press and long-time prison gang entrenchments, while expectations are high that he would not last. A big part of the battle plan that would help him win the war, however, was a series of live shows, not the least of which was the explosive September 10, 1970 B.B. King performance in the yard of the jail, topped off with Moore "[wringing] B.B.'s hand dry with appreciative thanks."
The album of the show itself, Live in Cook County Jail, does indeed constitute the story of two men: one who fought hard to become “the jail’s only barn boss,” and the other — after being hampered by a tough life with arduous financial struggles, managerial woes, and 25 years on the “chitlin' circuit” — one who eventually achieved career success as the “chairman of the board of blues singers.”
Still, that doesn’t mean the proceedings at the Cook County Jail concert can’t end as simply and unassumingly as they began (or as they're reflected in King’s bow to a standing ovation: “If you liked me today, can I come back tomorrow?”). The following liner notation may say it all: “B.B. King — Cook County Jail, is a manifestation of human generosity and beauty on B.B.’s part and the raw appreciation of 2,117 of his most ardent fans.” Jail, for this particular hour or two, was not particularly "one helleva place to be.”