B.B. King Plays Live at Sing Sing Prison in One of His Greatest Performances (1972)

“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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Thrill is Gone: See B.B. King Play in Two Elec­tric Live Per­for­mances

B.B. King Explains in an Ani­mat­ed Video Whether You Need to Endure Hard­ship to Play the Blues

B.B. King Changes Bro­ken Gui­tar String Mid-Song at Farm Aid, 1985 and Doesn’t Miss a Beat

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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