Nearly 2.5 million Americans are in prison in the United States. Although we've mastered that form of low income housing, the Shawshank Redemption has all taught us that prison is not that much fun. During the 1970s, however, some of America's incarcerated were treated to the best American blues musicians including a stand-out set by B.B. King forty-two years ago (he plays Segerstrom Hall this weekend) and music industry executives (better dressed wardens) saw a great opportunity to capitalize on their performances before a permanent and uniformly dressed audience.
It's all Johnny Cash's fault. His 1968 album At Folsom Prison was an unprecedented success. He even returned to lock-up the next year to record Live At San Quentin. Record labels took note of these raucous crowds and found a gimmick that could sell. The gimmick tailed off by the mid 1970s but country musicians and blues cats had a new stop on the touring circuit for a little while. Here are five of blues records recorded in the clink:
Live From Cook County Jail (1971)
King brought a seven-piece group into Chicago's Cook County Jail to pair with his definitive Live at the Regal. After an amusing collection of boos for representatives of law enforcement, King works Lucille with extended solos and lots of patter. It is hard to believe he was already in his mid 40s then.
Eric Burdon N Jimmy Witherspoon
Black N White (1971)
Burdon was the white on this recording. Witherspoon was the black blues veteran. The former Animal and the American blues legend combined for an interesting take on the blues and although not all of this album was recorded in prison, the above track was recorded live at San Quentin.
John Lee Hooker
Live at Soledad Prison (1972)
The boogie master is in good form on this recording, a little sloppy but sinister. Hooker's son, John Lee Hooker Jr, joins his old man for a little bonding time. The Central California prison is still there off the 101, advising drivers to refrain from picking up hitchhikers.
Friday the 13th Cook County Jail (1972)
Blues organist Jimmy McGriff was a funky dude. He brought his long-form tune “Freedom Suite” to a crowd of folks who knew the meaning of the word. This instrumental cut is dripping with soul and Is a nice departure from some of the more commercial recordings he released around this time.
Big Mama Thornton
Janis Joplin's cover of Big Mama Thornton's tune “Ball and Chain” helped to attract some attention for the blues legend. The original hound-dog belts out here on some originals and blues standards, digging in deep with her solid band.