TBT – B.B. King’s “Live in Cook County Jail” Still Inspires
It’s Throwback Thursday here at Chicago Blues, and today we look at the classic 1971 album, Live In Cook County Jail by B.B. King.
Originally released in 1971, on the MCA Records label, B.B. King’s Live In Cook County Jail is still as relevant and vibrant a landmark today as it was then.
This album is almost always compared to King’s Live At The Regal, also recorded in Chicago, in 1964. The two are as different as night and day. In 1964, for the most part, B.B. King was not very well known outside of the African American community, with the exception of white musicians such as Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Jimmy Page, and others. Live At The Regal contains more actual guitar playing than Live In Cook County Jail, and essentially, was the vehicle that made King more familiar to white audiences as a whole.
One of the reasons that Live In Cook County Jail has stood the test of time so well is the amount of maturity King shows in his playing here. It is true that there really isn’t a lot of guitar on this album, but the guitar that is here is leaps and bounds ahead of the playing on Live At The Regal in 1964. Every note is in just the right place; nothing is forced, and nothing is wasted.
Another reason this album is so respected is that it is recorded very well, mixed well, and has a nice live feel to it. The band is in fine form, delivering a truly superb performance. The personnel here are B.B. King – vocals and guitar, Wilbert Freeman – bass, Sonny Freeman – drums, John Browning – trumpet, Luis Herbert – tenor sax, Booker Walker – alto sax, and Ron Levey on piano. (Sonny Freeman also played drums on Live At The Regal.) Every performance on this album is authoritative and dynamic, and King’s voice is strong and full of passion. This is blues at its best.
The only criticisms generally leveled against this album is that there is too much talking, and that the recording as a whole is too short. The talking is a bit tiresome, but one should not forget the context in which this recording was made. This show was recorded at a prison, with a live, “captive” audience, and King talks with them as he might talk to the audience in a small supper club. He doesn’t talk to them, he shares with them, like he is among friends. Yes, the recording is all too short, but this makes us appreciate the music that much more.
However one chooses to look at Live In Cook County Jail, it is still a masterpiece of blues, and performance art. The album still serves as a primer for young blues players hoping to improve their playing and interpretation of the blues. As a snapshot of King himself, this recording is priceless. Live In Cook County Jail should be in every blues enthusiast’s collection.