Pop: And that is why I choose to sing the blues

In 1970, one Chicago jail was like a jungle, rife with corruption and violence. A new warden was determined to change things - with a little help from BB King. By James Maycock

James Maycock
Thursday 10 September 1998 23:02 BST

On a sublime autumn day in 1970, BB King performed for 2,117 prisoners in Cook County Jail. Against the sound of BB King's musicians tuning their instruments, a female official from Cook County Jail introduced members of the prison administration.

As she asked the prisoners to recognise "our own, beloved Sheriff Woods", the polite, scant applause was swiftly extinguished by the sound of booing from the prisoners. Undeterred, and with a growing sense of sarcasm, she introduced "another dear friend of all of yours out there, the Chief Justice of the Criminal Court, Judge Joseph Powers". These sentiments were met with louder cries of derision.

The official responded to the irascible mood of the prisoners by hurriedly initiating the start of the performance. "Would you please come forth, Mr King?" she asked, as the musicians and BB himself abruptly flung themselves into a very short, but manic, version of "Every Day I Have the Blues". The song bristled with anxious energy. Today, BB King concedes, "Well, yes, yes - I was nervous."

On that day in 1970, he was in a precarious, theoretically neutral, position, standing both as an official guest of the prison bureaucracy and also as a musician offering a momentary relief from the insipid existence of the convicts, 75 per cent of whom were black.

Two years previously, in 1968, the Illinois Crime Commission and the John Howard Association, a prison reform body, had jointly conducted an examination of Cook County Jail and uncovered a debauched and anarchic system. Describing the prison as a "jungle", they promptly discharged the disgraced warden and replaced him with a black psychologist called Winston Moore.

A former prisoner disclosed that, prior to Winston Moore's appointment, "Any- and everything went. Anything from heroin to whisky was sold and traded in the jail. Homosexual rape, bribery and murder were the bill of fare. No one seemed to give a damn."

On his very first day in office, Winston Moore seized over 200 weapons and a multitude of illegal drugs. He also confiscated the Mafia contingent's three fridges full of Italian food.

The prisoners, who had thrived undisturbed in the regime that had been instituted by the previous warden, began to physically intimidate Moore and his assistants. The former Deputy Warden had granted considerable authority to the most devious and domineering convicts. These men were called "barn bosses" who, initially, refused to submit to Winston Moore.

The scope of the corruption within Cook County Jail made some officials doubt Winston Moore's ability to restructure the prison. But he persevered and, ultimately, broke the will of the dissenters. BB King's concert was, in part, to celebrate Moore's achievement in pulling the prison out of chaos.

BB King was at the time playing at Mister Kelly's, which he remembers today as a "very prestigious jazz club" in Chicago. He was the first blues musician to perform there. Moore approached him and, as King recalls, "He said to me, `It's a first for you at Mister Kelly's and it's a first for me as a black person over here, so why don't we both get together and do another first and get you to play for the inmates?' That's how it came about."

King was guided around the institution and chatted with the convicts. "There's something final and scary and rock-hard about being on the inside of a prison," he says. "I didn't talk to a lot of them, but the press did. I invited them to see and talk. They could give a better detailed story about what was going on than I could."

Eighty per cent of the prisoners attended the concert, while the other 20 per cent, who, according to the bluesman, "they couldn't control very well", were locked in their cells. After the tense, over-fast performance of their first song, King and his musicians soothed the rowdy element within the audience with a succession of slow, emotional ballads.

King admits that he empathises with "anybody that's locked up... anybody that's not free, I should say", and, at Cook County Jail, he was saddened by the way that underlying racist conditions had determined the disproportionate amount of black men in the prison. His experience at the jail affected him profoundly.

He subsequently performed in other penal institutions and founded the organisation "Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation", which was based in Washington DC.

In 1970, many prisoners spent up to a year held on remand, prior to trial, and this period of time would not be deducted from their sentence. King remembers that a "TV network did a big story on that some time later on and they changed the system somewhat and that made me happy. I felt that we had done something good."

That day in Chicago, BB King transformed the sullen mood of the prisoners who, at the end, rose to their feet and applauded like crazy. The warden, Winston Moore, was equally thrilled at what King had accomplished.

Preceding the final song, a ballad called, "Please Accept My Love", BB King confided in his audience:

"Lucille - that's my guitar here - you know, we feel very good today. Very, very good. I would like to do it again some time, if you would like to have us back."

BB King's albums, `Live In Cook County Jail', `Completely Well', `Take It Home', `Live at the Regal' and `His Best: The Electric BB King', have all been digitally remastered and reissued

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