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Live in Cook County Jail is King of Chicago Blues albums

I was immediately swept up with this album as I was riding on a train back home from Chicago with my future wife sitting next to me. I can still remember us grinning at each other when the crowd on the album erupts in applause at the line, “I gave you seven children, and now you want to give them back.” King’s genuine attitude really sealed the deal for me, regardless of a few clunky executions on the album.

Synopsis

King was invited to Cook Country Jail by the new warden Clarence Richard English and played for 2,117 prisoners. English had seen king play at the Chicago nightclub Mister Kelly’s (Kapos).

The set included older material, and the track list is laid out as such:

  1. Introductions
  2. Every Day I Have the Blues
  3. How Blue Can You Get?
  4. Worry, Worry, Worry
  5. Medley: “3 O’Clock Blues,” “Darlin’ You Know I Love You””
  6. Sweet Sixteen
  7. The Thrill is Gone
  8. Please Accept My Love

Live in Cook County Jail is still regarded as one of King’s finest performances alongside Live at the Regal.

Analysis

I love the way this album opens. The jeers from the crowd at the very mention of prison and state officials sets the mood (and the reform in living conditions that took place after the concert at Cook County Jail hints at why they were not pleased to hear such esteemed names). The first track, though, is rushed, and King’s voice gets muddled in trilled horn instruments as he barrels through the lyrics. Nevertheless, most of the tracks are all around sonic bangers, and I always enjoy the crusty pentatonic peel that King attempts to pull off at the end of “The Thrill is Gone.” It’s authentic.

Even the sometimes ambling “Every Day I Have the Blues,” which is perhaps played too quickly (perhaps the live-stage jitters?), still affords that necessary energy to kick off the album. When the second track “How Blue Can You Get” came on I was completely riveted. My excitement trickled over, and I handed my wife one of my ear buds. It was such a perfect moment between us, and I can thank Chicago Blues for that.

This is a classic blues album, and I believe if you go in listening to a generic blues album, your expectations are typically met. There is going to be some yelling, some soloing, and some twelve-barring. Live at Cook County doesn’t disappoint in that regard, but it has some tricks up its sleeve. King monologues and inserts his discreet sort of guitar playing into all the right nooks and crannies. If we analyze it from the idea of intention in complexity, the listener will be comfortable with the bluesy-ness of the album, and will be delighted by the content and delivery.

This is a live album so I can cut it some slack in regards to fidelity, but I would also say that in that way, the audio is one of its best parts. It sounds like a blues album, and the listener doesn’t have to find a faux-blues band to hear them use vintage amps and equipment. It’s right there on stage. As far as the ideas go, King and the band play laid-back music on purpose (I’m guessing because of the setting), and jam and vamp their way through the album, setting a real tone for both expectation and reality.

I think B.B. King, much like everybody on the planet, is as authentic a blues player as one can get, and I also think on Live in Cook County Jail, King lives and breathes his blues music like a true blues man.

Trivia:

  • Press related to the album described the poor living conditions at Cook County Jail and necessitated prison reform. The prison had been referred to in the press as “a jungle” because the conditions were so rough for inmates.
  • The album reached Number One on the “Top R&B” chart, which is the only B.B. King album to do so throughout his career.
  • It was ranked 499 out of 500 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

Musicians:

B.B. King – guitar, vocals

Wilbert Freeman – bass

Sonny Freeman – drums

John Browning – trumpet

Louis Hubert – tenor saxophone

Booker Walker – alto saxophone

Ron Levy – piano

Sources: