August 10, 2015

[Summer Concert Series] B.B. King at the Regal Theater

  • By: David Weible

Summer is concert season, and as part of our own summer concert series, we're putting the spotlight on places that have witnessed some of the most memorable musical performances in American history. Some are traditional venues, and others… well, not so much. But they all have two things in common: terrific music and fascinating history.

Liner Notes

Performer(s): B.B. King (Leo Lauchie: bass, Duke Jethro: piano, Sonny Freeman: drums, Bobby Forte and Johnny Board: tenor sax)

Venue: The Regal Theater

Location: Bronzeville, Chicago

Date: November 21, 1964

Memorable Moment: The duration of Sweet Little Angel, It’s My Own Fault, and How Blue Can You Get? (Songs two, three, and four on the Live at the Regal album). If that series doesn’t stir something in you, you may not have a soul.

Show Vibe: Class and soul, all the way.

The Regal sat at the heart of Chicago's South Side Bronzeville neighborhood, which rivaled Harlem in cultural influence.

The Full Program

Though he’d been recording songs for 15 years, Live at the Regal was B.B. King’s first live album. His performance on that November night in 1964 has since become one of the most celebrated blues albums ever.

The album was a hit with the critics and the listening public alike – it’s often mentioned as a popular entry point into blues for white audiences. Rolling Stone called the album King’s “definitive live set” and gave voice to the rumor that Eric Clapton played the album to get up for his own shows.

King and his guitar Lucille lay bare their emotions and let you feel their pain over the 10-song set, accompanied by a silky smooth crew on piano, drums, sax, and bass. The consummate entertainer, King’s monologues and stories between songs are as charming as his music is pure.

B.B. King and his guitar, Lucille.

The crowd has a touch of Midwestern modesty. There isn’t quite as much overt enthusiasm as, say, James Brown’s performance at the Apollo, but the emotion is there, simmering just below the surface.

The 1928 Regal Theater sat at the geographic and cultural heart of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Home to thousands of African-Americans who had come north during the Great Migration, Bronzeville, on the city’s South Side, became the one of the national centers of black culture during the early and mid 20th century, rivaling the influence of the Harlem Renaissance. Civil rights activists like Ida B. Wells, Pulitzer Prize winners like Gwendolyn Brooks, and legendary musicians like Louis Armstrong called its Gothic, Romanesque, and Queen Anne style landscapes home.

The Regal Theater was known for its opulence and luxury.

The 3,000-seat Byzantine performance venue was built as the flagship of the Lubliner & Trinz theater circuit, and outdid its sister theaters on Chicago’s mostly white North Side for opulence and luxury. It hosted the era’s greatest black entertainers, including home-grown talent Nat King Cole (who got his start at the Regal’s amateur night). The Regal was also notable for its practice of employing mostly African-American managers, ushers, and house musicians -- an unusual practice at the time.

The theater closed in 1968 due to failing finances and was demolished in 1973. Today the site is home to the Harold Washington Cultural Center, named after Chicago’s first black mayor.

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

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