Les Back: How Blue Can You Get? BB King, Planetary Humanism and the Blues Behind Bars (PART ONE)

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BB King Live in Cook County JailHow Blue Can You Get?

BB King, Planetary Humanism and the blues behind bars


by Les Back

Amongst the tributes celebrating the life of BB King – who died on May 14th, 2015 aged 89 – it was rarely pointed out that this giant of blues guitar gave his most sublime performances behind bars. Over a twenty-five year period BB King performed in forty-seven different jails across America. As he reflected in his autobiography ‘there’s something about being in prison’.

Never for a fee, he played the blues inside the prison walls only for the satisfaction of what he called “touching souls that needed to be touched.” In remembering BB King’s music and his extraordinary life I want to foreground this because the ineffable ‘something’ he indexes, I argue, is a humanist sensibility in his music. In the feel, touch and tone of his guitar we can hear the trace of what Paul Gilroy has called a planetary humanism [1].

He was born Riley B King on September 16, 1925 on a cotton plantation called Berclair, near the town of Itta Bena, Mississippi. The son of sharecroppers Albert and Nora Ella King, the young Riley was raised by his grandmother from the age of four. During much of his early life he had to fend for himself. He wrote in his biography that this early experience of estrangement and loneliness formed him as a person: “My friendliness might fool you… But few if any really know me… Words are not my friends. Music is. Sounds, notes, rhythms.”

While in Memphis working as a singer and disc jockey at WDIA, he picked up the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy”, later shortened to “Blues Boy” and then finally to B.B. During the 1950s, BB King emerged as a key figure in the electric blues scoring hits with “3 O’Clock Blues, ” “Woke Up This Morning,” “You Upset Me Baby” and “Every Day I Have the Blues”.

In 1954, BB King named his guitar ‘Lucille’ after he nearly lost his life rescuing it from a burning dancehall in Twist, Arkansas. It’s a story that bears repeating. Two men got into a fight, they knocked over a vat of burning kerosene being used for heating. When BB emerged from the burning building holding his guitar he was told that the men were fighting over a woman named ‘Lucille’.

Why do blues guitarists name their guitars? Personalising an instrument makes it individual and perhaps more human. For many players the guitar is their most constant companion. But a blues musician’s life is precarious and always on the move. Many guitars have been stolen on the road or pawned when cash is tight. There is something meaningful in the act of naming the guitar and most bluesmen choose females names.

Baptising a guitar is not just about giving it an identity, making it a ‘significant other’ and the object of love and devotion. The relationship between musician and instrument is two-way. Hands and fingers wear themselves into the instrument’s body. The soul of the player seeps into the fretboard and the guitar also becomes part of the musician.

Lucille has taken the shape of many different kinds of guitar. The first Lucille was a Gibson L30 archtop. This guitar was stolen and BB replaced it with a Gibson ES 5 like his hero T Bone Walker. However, since the late fifties, Lucille has taken the form of the Gibson 335. BB wrote in his biography in 1996 “I’ve turned to Lucille – and there have been seventeen different Lucilles – for comfort and relief. Just to pick her up and stroke her settled me down. I put her on my lap and wait until some happy combination of notes falls from her mouth.” [2]

The ES 335 became the medium through which BB achieved his unique tone. As a young man he loved the sound of the hillbilly steel guitars he heard on the radio. The trace of that fascination and also the sound of delta slide guitar players like his cousin Booker White, echoes in BB’s style of vibrato and string bending. You only need to hear one note of BB King playing to identify his unique sonic fingerprint.

By the time BB King was doing his prison performances in the 1970s, blues was thought to be out of step with black popular taste. BB’s manager – Sid Seidenberg – tried to broaden BB’s appeal, and this was not just with white rock audiences that embraced him. Seidenberg also booked BB to play at Mr Kelly’s, Chicago’s prestigious jazz club on Rush Street, a place where Sarah Vaughn, comedian Bill Cosby and a young Barbara Streisand had performed. This lounge jazz venue would provide the unlikely steppingstone for his history-making performance at Cook County Jail.

Live at Cook County

In the late sixties and early seventies, a crisis was unfolding in America’s prisons. It was driven in part by a shortage of resources but also prisons had become inequality factories. They both produced and processed divisions of race and class. At Cook County, the prison population was 90% black, while the prison guards and wardens in control of them remained largely white.

Facing limited resources, the then Deputy Warden of Cook County set up the “Barn Boss” system, which effectively handed over the internal running of the prison to the inmates. Once the bars on the prison doors were locked the tiers of the jail were run by whoever was the toughest and most physically intimidating inmate. For the prison authorities, all that mattered was that the prisoners didn’t escape. C Richard English, who played a central role in bringing BB King to Cook County, remembered: “There was a very serious level of rapes and I think the straw that broke the camel’s back and caused the administration to change was when a white young man was hanged. They say he hanged himself but they believed the inmates hung him. They abused him so bad that he was probably going to tell.” [3]

In March 1968, Black Psychologist Winston Moore was appointed Warden of Cook County; in fact he was the first black Warden in the United States. C Richard English was his Chief Jail Officer, responsible for the internal running the prison. English came to Cook County from the Illinois State Correctional Department for Youth in Joliet. He was an ex-ranger paratrooper and retired professional fighter and kickboxer. He immediately recruited a small team of over a dozen officers from Chicago’s black neighbourhoods including his boxing team. Many of the members bore names as memorable as any gangster like ‘Smitty’ or ‘Iron Man’ Wallace [4]. He remembered: “The Sheriff at the time, I mean had nothing to lose, he had the worst jail in the world I mean what did he have to lose? It was like do or die.”

The Tiers of the prison run by the ‘Barn Bosses’ and ‘Tier Clerks’ had to be taken back by ‘cracking heads’ and through physical force. English’s team cleaned out stashes of weapons and confiscated drugs as well as refrigerators full of food. C Richard English reflected: You can’t do what I did now. Half of that stuff we had to do probably got us put in jail.” Paradoxically, inside the prison, black prison guards had to “take care of the white guys first. It was like a reversed segregation type situation in the jail because white guys were so outnumbered they were at the mercy of the other prisoners.” However, English said “the black guys knew what I was doing” and it was widely recognized that the level of prisoner on prisoner violence under the ‘Barn Boss’ System was out of control.

I asked him if the hiring of black prison guards made a difference to the dynamics with the prisoners. “Yes sir, it did make a big difference. One of my finest officers was the first cousin of one of the worst inmates. I hired him and he told me his father was looking for a job. Being a Correctional Officer was a good job in Chicago – still is. So I hired his father and his brother.”

The black officers were not only tough but they also brought with them the sensibilities of the neighbourhood. English said: “Although you have to be heavy handed you also have to know when to stand down and make sure the inmates got what they need to survive.” What is interesting amongst the black leadership of Cook County was their awareness that taking back physical control of the prison was only part of the answer.

Music was central to the strategy for pacifying Cook County. C Richard English was a jazz fan, his favourite artist being the blind English pianist George Shearing. His mother was a school teacher specializing in English and music. English developed a sophisticated classification system that kept most prisoners away from the “hard core tough group.” He also put all the inmates who could play music together in a tier of the prison, and in this section jail bands formed including rock’n’roll, spirituals, and jazz with something between 40 to 60 musicians. English brought street entertainers into the prison too for concerts, and, prior to BB King’s historic show, jazz singer Ester Phillips performed at Cook County [5].

English had met BB King in Memphis several years before the bluesman came to Chicago to play at Mr Kelly’s jazz club. By this point Winston Moore was Warden of Cook County. English brought King and Moore together and they hatched a plan to play a concert at Cook County and also record it.

It would not be the first time that BB King’s music would be recorded live in Chicago. In 1964 he recorded Live at the Regal, which captured his performance in a black theater in Chicago and is widely regarded as a classic blues recording amongst critics and blues aficionados. In his autobiography, King himself is more circumspect, commenting: “even though the Live album was cool, I’ve probably played hundreds of better concerts than the one taped at the Regal.” [6]

The recording made at Cook County on 10th September, 1970 in front of 2,117 inmates was truly exceptional. In front of the concrete block used for stage, wooden benches were set out for two hundred female prisoners to sit on while the men stood or sat behind them. It was a hot day by September standards. C Richard English remembers: “He walked through the crowd and shook hands with the inmates and he gave them autographs. He allowed the inmate band to play with him including female inmate singers – an hour and a half show non-stop.” Twenty five members of staff volunteered to come in for free on their ‘off day’ and a hundred officers were on duty. Once the prison band finished playing the tapes started to roll.

At the beginning of the recording, Jewel LaFontant, a Chicago laywer, offers a few words of credit to Sheriff Joseph Woods and Chief Judge Power for appointing Winston Moore and the changes at Cook County. The chorus of boos and jailhouse jeers made the prisoners’ feelings clear. BB King stepped forward and gave an astonishing performance. It combined the intensity of a Baptist sermon and the comedy of a vaudeville comedian.

The intensity of his guitar playing is what left a lasting impression on C Richard English. “ I talked to BB a couple of times about that music and he felt a closeness and sympathy for the guys that were locked up and he wanted to really relate to ‘em and tell ‘em a story… especially that song he did The Thrill is Gone. He really got into it with that guitar – not so much with the words but with the guitar music. Looking at the audience they are feeling the same thing he is feeling.”










Live at Cook County captured the soaring intensity of his playing, the eloquent string bending in his solos that tell a story in musical phrases like the electric trace of a human voice. In his autobiography, Blues All Around Me he reflected: “Maybe it’s the stone walls, maybe the electric fences or the guard towers or the sound of those huge iron doors slamming behind you. There’s something final and scary and rock-hard about being inside of a prison. I was a guest performer at the Cook County jail, I’d come to entertain the men, and I couldn’t help but feel the oppression. My heart was heavy with feeling for the guys behind bars. It didn’t matter that I’d never been in criminal trouble myself. I’d known men who’d gone to prison and understood how the circumstances of their lives led them there. It’s not that I don’t feel for the victims and it’s not that I don’t believe in personal responsibility. I do. But I worry about the correctional facilities and their capacity to help rebuild souls, rather than destroy them.” [7]

C Richard English said that a month after the recording was made, BB King returned to the prison. This time it was not to perform but rather just to catch up with the inmates. The Chief let him roam wherever he wanted to go. BB King spent two or three hours in the yard talking to prisoners and catching up with the musicians in the prison band. King’s concert was not the last at Cook County. They hosted monthly shows into the eighties including blues giants like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, along with soul singers like Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, the Chi-Lites and the Pointer Sisters. English’s own favourite, the blind jazz pianist George Shearing, performed in the jail twice and even Liza Minnelli performed for the inmates, choosing a “more bluesy repertoire especially for the occasion”.

“Music is powerful stuff. When you listen to music and you locked up – music kinda put a spell on you in a way” concluded English. “Music soothes the soul and sends a message. He continued “You take a guy like Marvin Gaye’s music What’s Going On singing about that Vietnam stuff. You could stop fights with that type of music. I had a [music] box made for myself so I could be part of the inmate situation and I’d go around and play music for the guys in different places and I’d play Marvin Gaye What’s Going On and guys would stop arguing and slow down and start dancing.”




[1] See Paul Gilroy After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture (Routlwdge, 2004) and Paul Gilroy Darker Than Blue: On the Moral economies of Black Atlantic Culture (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).

[2] BB King with David Ritz The Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of BB King (IT Books, 2011) p. 130.

[3] All quotations taken from a telephone interview with the author on May 27th, 2015.

[4] Clarence Richard English Cook County Jail Barn Boss: Memoir of a Former Jail Warden (Morrsi Publishering, 2007).

[5] See Cook County Barn Boss p. 69-70

[6] The Blues All Around Me p. 222

[7] Blues All Round Me p. 257


To be continued…

The second part of Les’ piece on BB King is available here.

Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London


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