In the summer of 1998, Alexander Cockburn and I spent a few days in North Richmond, California, a battered industrial city just outside of Berkeley. We had just published our book Whiteout on the CIA and drug trafficking and had been invited to speak at a black church about the horrific toll of the drug war on urban America. North Richmond was the Antietam of this senseless slaughter, its neighborhoods ravaged by gang shootings and police killings, most of them fueled by the crack trade abetted by US intelligence agencies to help fund their covert wars in Central America. At the time, North Richmond was staggering under the highest murder rate in California, more than 50 killings per hundred thousand residents. We spent the afternoon helping local organizers and grieving families place over 200 black crosses at sites where drug killings had occurred during the past few years.
After a somber day, Alex and I drove down to Oakland in Cockburn’s notoriously temperamental 1960 Valiant to see B.B. King perform. King was touring with his big band, under the immaculate direction of pianist Millard Lee, and they were smoking hot that night, opening with a driving rendition of “Sweet Little Angel” and closing it down 90 minutes later with a fiery version of “Let the Good Times Roll.” King had swelled to a Pantagruelian girth by then and he spent most of the evening performing from a chair. Even so, his voice remained robust and he picked and bent his notes as soulfully as ever. About halfway through the show, King summoned the bass player to hoist him from his seat. King strolled to the mic and told the crowd that he had spent the afternoon visiting with inmates at San Quentin. I jotted down what he said that night in my notebook. “Friends, there are too many of us locked away. Locked away and forgotten. They’re in prison, but let’s not think of them as prisoners. They are people, like you and me, down on their luck.” Then he launched into “Ten Long Years.” Afterwards, Alex told me it was the best concert he’d ever heard. (Of course, Cockburn had also made the same snap declaration about a Little Richard gig, during which Alex had nodded off 30 minutes into the performance.)
Thirty years earlier, King released Live in Cook County Jail, a scorching performance recorded before a thousand inmates in one of Chicago’s most notorious facilities. The platform King and his band played on during that seminal concert had served as a gallows for executions not too many years earlier. While he was at the jail, King spent the day talking to inmates, about 80 percent of whom were black. “They told me how they came to be locked up,” King said. “They would stay for seven or eight months before the trial took place because they couldn’t afford the bail. And then when they did go to trial, if they were guilty, the time was not deducted from the time they were given. And if they were innocent, they got no compensation.”
Like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, King made a point to perform in prisons and jails for decades until the American incarceration industry became sadistic enough to prevent inmates from enjoying live music. He played a stunning set at Sing Sing with Joan Baez, performed many times at San Quentin and in 1981, invited Congressman John Conyers to attend his concert before 3,000 inmates at the infamous Jackson State Penitentiary in Michigan, then the largest walled prison in the world. When King was asked why he played in prisons so often, he said he had envisioned himself behind bars. “”I’ve never been in trouble myself but I think about, it could have just as easily been B.B. King inside, instead of B.B. King going out there to play.”
King was so serious about the state of American prisons that in 1971 he teamed up with defense attorney F. Lee Bailey to start the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation, which advocated for humane conditions in jailhouses, the education and training of inmates, an end to solitary confinement, and the introduction of more art and music into prison life. The timing for such a campaign couldn’t have been more urgent. That very year, Nixon had inaugurated his war on drugs, a cruel and relentless blitzkrieg against black Americans that would eventually ensnare King’s own daughter Patty, landing her in a grim Texas prison. In Nixon’s own words, scribbled down by HR Haldeman, “it’s all about the blacks.”
When King recorded Live in Cook County Jail, the US prison population stood at 450,000, less than 100 inmates per 100,000 people. By the time King died in 2015, the US sported the highest incarceration rate in the world, totaling about 2.3 million prisoners, more than 712 inmates per 100,000 people. The vast majority are jailed for drug crimes.
Riley B. King, great-grandson of liberated slaves, was born in 1925 on the Berclair cotton plantation outside of Ita Bena. Late in his life, King dispelled any notion that he left rural Mississippi for the neon lure of the big city. Instead, King said he fled Indianola for Memphis out of fear: “I saw lynchings, seen people hanging, seen people drug through the streets. I had to get away.”
For the next 70 years, the hellhound of race-hatred haunted his trail, claiming friends, family and lovers, as the terrorists in white sheets of his youth mutated into state-sanctioned violence by men in blue. Yet BB King never surrendered to despondency. The great Buddha of the Blues remained a voice of compassion, a voice charged with the faith that no human life–however desiccated by the cruelties of the world–is ever beyond reclaiming.
When I’m down, I drop the needle on BB King. Almost any record will do, but there’s nothing quite like his raucous version of “Help the Poor,” from Live at the Regal, for psychic uplift. In his singing and playing, I hear the sounds of fierce struggle, of shackles breaking, of unyielding aspiration toward a freer future. King’s music is, and will always remain, an antidote to despair and nihilism.
BB King Live at Sing Sing…
What I’m reading this week…
Separated: Inside an American Tragedy
Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man
(Simon & Schuster)
The Life and Death of Ancient Cities
What I’m listening to this week…
Pursuance: the Coltranes
(Reverberation Appreciation Society)