“I was told that some of you dudes don’t know anything about blues,” he said from the stage before beginning what he would go on to call the one of the greatest shows of his career: “So I wanna say this to you: I came to swap some with you. I imagine that quite a few of you dudes have the blues already.” After a little more friendly banter and an acknowledgment that it is Thanksgiving Day, B.B. King launches into “Downhearted” (or “How Blue Can You Get”) in front of his admiring audience of inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York.
It is three years after Johnny Cash performed at San Quentin (four years after his Folsom concert) and one year after Nixon declared the “war on drugs” and began the period of mass incarceration that has reached epidemic proportions today.
The concert at Sing Sing included not only King but also performances from comedian Jimmy Walker (J.J. from Good Times, who introduces King at the top), ensemble vocal group Voices of East Harlem, and Joan Baez and her sister Mimi Fariña, who you can see below sing “I Shall Be Released” and “Viva mi patria Bolivia.” In-between the stars performances, inmates put on a play and recited original poetry.
Baez, as you’ll see, was very well received, but the star of the night was King. The entire show was captured on film by documentary director David Hoffman, who had been teaching film at the prison and who organized the show. In the clips above, Hoffman shows us several close-ups of the inmates’ faces in beautifully humanizing portraits reminiscent of the photographs of Gordon Parks. You can see Hoffman below briefly describe the circumstances of the concert before another clip of the “Downhearted” performance and more.
See a few more clips from the concert on Youtube here, and buy a copy of the complete DVD here (Richard and Mimi Fariña’s website has a complete listing of performances). The Sing Sing concert had an impact on the performers as well as the inmates. Baez wrote an original song for the film's credits (below) and her sister Mimi was inspired afterward to found Bread & Roses, which organizes concerts for people in hospitals, homeless shelters, prisons, and other institutions (“anywhere they serve Jell-O,” joked comedian Don Novello).
This was not the first time King had performed at a prison. The year previous, in 1971, he put on a concert at Chicago’s Cook County Jail. The resulting record made Rolling Stone’s 500 best albums list, though it didn’t merit the most favorable review from the magazine. Nonetheless, Allmusic pronounced it a “live album with some real sparks to it,” and “possibly the best live version of ‘The Thrill is Gone’ of all its many incarnations.” Hear it below and decide for yourself, and hear the full Cook County live album here.
Of that earlier prison concert, King’s keyboardist Ron Levy remarked, “If anybody had the blues, it was those people incarcerated. And B.B. really felt compassion for those guys…. People don’t realize B.B. King was much more than just a musician and entertainer. He’s a human being, a humanitarian. He cared. He’s one of the really good guys. There aren’t many like him in history. He’s not just the king of the blues. He’s one of the kings of humanity.”