BY MARK KONKOL
June 10, 2011
People who love the blues say the jailhouse recording, “B.B. King Live in Cook County Jail,” is one the best live albums ever. Even Rolling Stone magazine listed it as one of the Top 500 albums of all time.
On Wednesday, then-warden Clarence Richard English and a few of his former head-busting jail guards – J.J. Zurek, Ed Curtis and Raul Estrada – returned to the jail yard for the first time since retiring to talk about their memories of the blustery, sunny afternoon.
“That was a hell of a day. Never forget it,” English said. “The guy put on a hell of a show.”
Things have changed since Sept. 10, 1970 – the day the King of the Blues went to the “World’s Worst Jail.”
Back then Cook County Jail was a chaotic hell controlled by jail guard lieutenants called “barn bosses,” each with their own band of henchmen. They fought – with their fists and the occasional rifle – to keep heavy-handed control of inmates. King’s concert was an experiment by late jail director Winston Moore, a psychologist who wanted to get rid of the barn bosses. It was a way to keep a lid on the joint by offering the criminals a treat . . . instead of the customary choke hold.
“Inmates knew, number one, if they acted up that was the end of the entertainment,” Zurek said. “And two, who ever acted up would have to face the other inmates.”
No one was really sure if it would work.
It was 87 degrees. Hot.
Almost every prisoner – 2,117 inmates by one count – sat on the jail yard grass where at least a couple times someone trying to make a break for it by climbing the wall took a bullet from a watchtower sniper.
About 200 women inmates sat in the front rows. They were so close King even kissed the hand of one lucky, locked-up lady.
The men – killers, petty thieves and gang kingpins Jeff Fort and Larry Hoover, among them – sat in roped off sections of grass.
Only the guys on Death Row remained locked up, but even they were allowed to listen through slightly opened windows.
About 25 jail guards – a few of them stationed in guard towers toting .50 caliber semi-automatic rifles – on duty to make sure none of the knuckleheads started a riot or tried to escape.
It was Curtis’ job to make sure the King didn’t get shanked while they walked through the tunnels, iron-barred doors and the electric chair of what Ebony magazine had called the “World’s Worst Jail.” He thought the place might erupt into a fight.
“If the inmates wanted to do something they could have,” Curtis said. “Those rifles were there for show. They weren’t going to shoot into the crowd.”
But King remained calm; cool even, as he took to the former gallows with Lucille, his guitar, and his band, Curtis said.
The late Jewel LaFontant, a Chicago lawyer once considered for a seat on the Supreme Court by President Nixon, got everyone’s attention by announcing the men responsible for the show – Sheriff Joseph Woods and chief judge Joseph Power. The yard erupted in boos that you can hear on the record’s opening track.
But that’s as rowdy as jailhouse got. And King was at his best.
“The song that sticks in my mind is “The Thrill is Gone.” That is the No. 1 song BB has ever done and I remember looking out over the audience … inmates sitting on the ground. They were hot, but enjoying themselves and getting along. It was really peaceful,” English said. “And B.B. was up there sweating and pouring out that blues and making our day.”
King talked to the inmates, he even gave life advice to female prisoners.
“Ladies, if you got a man and the man don’t do like you think he should. Don’t you hurt him,” King said. “I said, don’t hurt him. Man happens to be God’s gift to women.”
“It was shall I say a captive audience, but these guys really seemed to enjoy the show,” King said in an e-mail. “They gave me a standing ovation. I keep that memory with me today.”
The days of jail concerts are long over. But if Cook County’s live music-loving Sheriff Tom Dart wants a B.B. King encore the blues legend – who still plays more than 200 shows a year – says he is up for it.
“I was just doing what I love to do, and that’s playing for the people,” King said. “We have not had an opportunity to do any prison concerts in many years. It is something that I would consider doing in the future.”