To mark the event of Thanksgiving in 1972, B.B. King played what he would call his best ever live performance years later when he reminisced upon his spectacular show at New York’s maximum-security Sing Sing prison, an event that saw King show the true power of music by introducing the blues to prisoners.
Playing inside a prison was something that B.B. King felt passionate about, a drive which started three years earlier when he first appeared at Chicago’s County Cook jail. That performance would begin his affinity of spreading the joy of the blues to people who needed it the most. Johnny Cash’s groundbreaking concert at Folsom Prison a few years earlier had started a chain of events which provided prisoners with a slice of hope during torturous times.
This selflessness spirit of King is epitomised by the fact that he gave up his Thanksgiving to give the inmates in New York a gift that money couldn’t buy, along with memories which would stick with them for life. His biographer, Sebastian Danchin, noted his performances were greeted with all the delight in the world by the inmates who understood King’s sincerity. “The prisoners saw King’s visit as an all-too-rare recognition of their humanity,” wrote Danchin.
“People quite often tease me about going to prisons to play my kind of music,” King said in an interview to NBC in 1990. “I’ve never been in trouble myself but I think about, it could have just as easily been a B.B. King instead of B.B. King going out there to play,” saying he could have easily wound up in prison.
Joan Baez shared the bill with King at this memorable concert that provided the artists with as much joy as it did the inmate, giving prisoners a remembrance that they are still human beings. King’s keyboardist Ron Levy said on the prison concerts, “If anybody had the blues, it was those people incarcerated. And B.B. really felt compassion for those guys.”
“People don’t realise 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,” he added.
“I was told that some of you dudes don’t know anything about blues,” King then said from the stage before playing 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.”
This compassion that was running through every fibre in King’s body that made him see prisoners as human beings that have made a mistake rather than evil animals, which was the common view when he was doing these concerts.
Watch the stunning clip from his concert at Sing Sing below which captures King give a thrilling performance.