Adobe Stock | Naglagla
Learn how one Ossining filmmaker uncovered the true story of B.B. King’s 1972 concert at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
When 43 deaths at the 1971 Attica Prison Rebellion stunned a nation, most Americans had no idea what it was really like inside the big house. Documentarian David Hoffman had recently relocated to Ossining and decided to go inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility to see what was going on behind its walls.
What started as a filmmaking class for 50 inmates ultimately blossomed into a 90-minute documentary featuring B.B. King in his prime, iconic folk singer/activist Joan Baez, and The Voices of East Harlem. Comedian Jimmie “J.J.” Walker of TV’s Good Times fame rounded out the four hours of entertainment on Thanksgiving Day, 1972.
A kernel of the idea for the Sing Sing film had been planted a year earlier, when Hoffman worked with Baez on another documentary. Back in 1969, Baez’s then-husband, David Harris, was imprisoned for draft evasion.
That same year, Sing Sing also opened its gates to Puerto Rican jazz musician Eddie Palmieri, and only weeks after Hoffman’s all-star jam, a then-unknown named Bruce Springsteen also performed at the Ossining institution. Hoffman’s documentary, B.B. King at Sing Sing Prison, lends an intimacy and humanity to the prisoners, many of whom befriended and protected Hoffman during his time teaching the class and directing the film.
“Sing Sing was imposing, stark, and forbidding,” remembers Walker. “When they slammed that gate behind us, there was a little fear in all of us that we might never get out.” The concert setting was “cold and bare, except for a stage and rows of folding chairs,” adds Walker.
The baby-faced Voices of East Harlem’s energetic, dance-infused set lit up the crowd (“the girls had to throw on some more clothes and tone down their dance moves,” says Walker). Their interpretation of Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black” was stellar, and B.B. King’s heartfelt performance was “an explosion,” says Hoffman of the legendary blues guitarist.
“[B.B. King] came from the Mississippi Delta. He knew the blues but never felt he was above anybody, despite his stardom,” adds Hoffman. King even allowed the filmmakers to capture him waking up in his hotel room.
But King spoke loudest with his music. Reminding the morning audience (lighting then required daytime filming) that it was a day of grace, he breaks into his current single, “Guess Who,” and there’s not a dry eye in the house:
Somebody loves you,
Somebody really cares,
The camera pans to the seated inmates, some visibly wiping away tears. King went on to to say that he never gave a better performance, and Hoffman says it was one of two documentaries that touched him most in a storied career.