Less than two months after the 1971 Attica prison riot, B.B. King played the Rikers Island juvenile detention facility, and Patrick Carr, writing for the Village Voice, was there to document the concert. “When King wound up his performance the prisoners were on their feet stomping and whistling and shouting their applause,” Carr said in his piece, the full version of which you can read below.
B.B. King died Thursday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 89. The Times reports he had been under hospice care, though he was still performing up until October 2014.
“This was immediately following whatever you want to call the stuff that happened at Attica,” Carr tells the Voice by phone. “The inmates took over the prison and kept it for a while, until the New York State Police and Governor Rockefeller and various other people ran out of patience, or good judgment, and went in and killed a bunch of them.” In all, 33 prisoners and 10 correctional officers died as a result of the riot.
“So it was right after that,” Carr continues. “A publicist by the name of Jeff Richards called me out of the blue, and at that point I had never written for the Village Voice — I was writing for other people — [but] Jeff told me about it and asked if I would like to go along. I said sure. I went along, and what you’re reading resulted from that.
“I think that’s the only time I ever actually saw B.B. King perform live.”
With the full approval of Mayor Lindsay, Commissioner McGrath, Supervising Warden Francis R. Buono, and every other politician and bureaucrat who could get in on the act, B.B. King put on a show for the juvenile inmates of the Rikers Island Correctional Facility.
For the tarnished Correction officials squirming in the backlash of Attica’s bloodbath, the concert was an event to be squeezed for every last drop of public relations it offered. For B.B. King it was but one in a series of prizing gigs which started at Cook County Jail, carried on through Dade County Stockade in Miami and Lorton Reformatory in Washington, D.C., and is planned to take him and his retinue to 15 other prisons in the next few months — all for love, publicity, and exposure to an audience that has no way of paying money (just time, and that’s plentiful in prison) to see The King Of The Blues, that darling daddy and source of inspiration to every white blues/rock guitarist to have made his fortune from the electric blues guitar style pioneered by T-Bone Walker and developed by B.B. himself over 20 years of going-nowhere dates in small-time country dance-halls and big-city blues clubs, playing blues to the people while the Man raked in the profits.
Now B.B. has made his own fortune from adoring hippy blues-freaks and Middle Americans in search of Soul, thanks to the promotional efforts of such admirers and plagiarists as the Stones, Eric Clapton, and Mike Bloomfield, the consummately skillful management of Sydney Seidenberg, a man with golden connections who gave America Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, and three years spent perfecting a polished stage act which somehow manages to appeal equally to habitués of funky rock palaces and the big spenders of Caesar’s Palace and the Royal Box. He is the first black purist to make it into the world of penthouse superstars, and therefore he is a walking contradiction of the traditional economics of the blues.
For the young prisoners, who were of course, mostly black or Puerto Rican, the event was a visit from the impossible big-time dream of OUTSIDE: they were not blues fans, for the blues have their roots in the plantations of the South where B.B. spent his youth, and that ain’t where it’s at for the first generations of city-born blacks. Their heroes are Wilson Pickett and James Brown, Carla Thomas and the might Aretha, Sly, the Chambers Brothers, and their funkadelic cohorts. It’s their parents, even their grandparents, who dig B.B. in his impeccable jacket and the tie bringing respectability and international acclaim to the back room street-corner underground music of their rural youth…
Trusties in green fatigues sat at the back and front of the barren gymnasium; ordinary inmates, Afro’d almost to a man, filled the middle spaces with dull brown and stenciled numbers; guards in blue, ranged around the walls, struck poses of professional indifference, prison officials hobnobbed with B.B.’s white managers an the gentlemen of the press in a cozy group clustered at the foot of the stage. Outside, beyond double steel electric gates, a sign in scarlet: NO GUNS BEYOND THIS POINT.
B.B.’s seven-piece band turned the adolescents on — mildly. It really wasn’t their bag even if it was such a wonderful Event, but when B.B. strode onstage to bend his jeweled jovial success-story black man’s fingers around stunning crystal riffs on the latest of a string of Gibson Stereo guitars called Lucille, it must have sounded so good to all those lonely boys shut up in Whitey’s prison with no freedom, no women, and no music but what they could make themselves outside their cells. Occasionally, they hear jazz concerts (28 in the past five years) organized by Carl Warwick, Music Director, jazz trumpeter, and a friend of jazzmen. It was he who met B.B.’s manager buying razor-blades in a Boston drugstore, and took it from there.
“Y’know, it was almost as award for us to get in here as it was for you to get out,” B.B. quipped. Commissioner McGrath and his buddy the warden chortled together.
The set was impeccable, if somewhat restrained (nothing too wild, B.; it may be an Apollo audience, but the management’s changed). After every brief flash of fire the whistles rang and the power salutes shot into the air; when B.B. waggled his ample hips in camp parody of the unfaithful girlfriend the howls drowned out the music; when he delivered the punch-line of a cuckold blues — “Yo’ better tell that insurance man, he’d better buy some insurance on hisself!” — the frustrated recognition burst through the hall, and McGrath nosed over my shoulder to see what it was I wrote in my notebook; when King wound up his performance the prisoners were on their feet stomping and whistling and shouting their applause, flashing peace and power — just like the old Fillmore on a good night, but where Bill Graham should have been, there was Warden Buono in crewcut, pot-belly, blazer, tie, and slacks with his hands pointing finger-pistols for silence at his juvenile charges. Votes of thanks and another round of applause for B.B. and his band, this time with perfect school decorum. Huge smiles, everybody happy, God in His Heaven and …
Backstage, the golden boy from Indianola, Mississippi, exchanged warmth and encouragement with his trustees and members of the prison band while the tall skinny one in the sharp suit agitated for movement — “Just sign your name, B.; we want to walk and talk. That’s it, B., we want to walk and talk with these gentlemen from the pres. Okay boys, that’s it no more autographs. B., we’re really pressed for time; just your name, B., we have to walk and talk.”
The short pale one in the sharp suit hovered like some ineffectual anemic shepherd waiting for a chance to approach the king ram, but B.B. had temporarily deserted his new white world.
We did walk and talk, briefly: B.B. King is for prison reform; he remembers all those years of deprivation and bootlicking from the cotton fields to the clubs where he scratched a meager leaving while the owners raked in the profits. He wants to bring the outside inside for example and inspiration. He’s a perfect prison performer, a classic liberal who once told and audience of prisoners, “Take a positive attitude because things could be worse,” But he plays a beautiful guitar.
As we passed out of the gymnasium I looked up and saw a huge oil painting high on the wall. A pure white Christ glowed virtue from his cross, while at his feet a gnarled Satan, oozing evil from every pore, offered up his tempter’s chalice of plundered spoils. Satan’s face was that of the archetypal East Harlem pimp/hustler/dealer/knife-fighter. It could easily have been the other way around.