With Jacksonville and MacMurray in its prime, B.B. King pays a visit
By Ben Cox
There are literally hundreds of articles, over a dozen books, a documentary and then all of the music B.B. King has left us before he passed away in 2015.
This article will be a little bit different than all of the rest. Its roots lie in Jacksonville and more specifically at Annie Merner Chapel and MacMurray College.
Let’s go back a bit. It’s 1970. Jacksonville is at the height of its historical population at over 20,000 people. MacMurray College had just become a coeducational institution a year before, after operating as separate institutions for men and women, beginning with the first male enrollees in 1957.
Life in the U.S. was in tumult. The Vietnam War. The Black Power Movement. The Women’s Rights Movement. The First Man on the Moon. The assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
For B.B. King, he had suddenly emerged as a new force on the pop charts after spending decades laboring in the South’s Chitlin’ Circuit and in Black clubs across the U.S. thirsting for success and recognition playing the blues.
New management, however, wanted King to “cross over” to white audiences, specifically at college campuses. December 1969’s release of the album, “Completely Well,” and the single, “The Thrill Is Gone,” saw King’s biggest hit of his career. On the heels of that success, he was zigzagging across the country playing for new audiences and bigger venues.
A first network television appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in February 1969 fueled some of the popularity as well as the hit single that was slowly bubbling over into the pop charts by the end of the year.
MacMurray College’s campus, newly integrated between men and women, was also in uncharted territory.
MacMurray graduate and student at the time, Willy Stanton, said the college was at a turning point in time. Young men and women were treated differently. He says that women on campus were kicked out of class if they were wearing jeans or pants. Stanton says that MacMurray had an interesting makeup of students at the time, with most of the student body (estimated over 51%) coming from the East Coast due to the college’s past connections there with its early benefactors from Illinois Women’s College.
Students were strictly forbidden to live off campus and had to stay in the dorms. Most didn’t go home for the weekends — like many would think of the colleges of today.
Illinois College was the school that had the more local connection with more “townies.” Stanton said that because most of the student body was from out of town, the school and students themselves had to come up with entertainment while they stayed on campus for school. He said that led him to an active pursuit of membership in the student activities committee, which he said was primarily responsible for bringing entertainment to campus. As a result, musical acts of interest to the students were brought in to perform.
Stanton said he specifically remembers seeing “Gary Lewis & The Playboys;” “The Association;” “Rotary Connection,” which included Minnie Ripperton at the time; and B.B. King play at Annie Merner Chapel.
Tickets were sold to students on campus. Specifically for the B.B. King show, tickets cost $2. Members of the public were also invited to campus. They could purchase at the door or downtown at a place called The Music Shop on East State Street. The location was directly across the street from present-day Market House Antiques.
Research has been elusive as to what King played during his performance; most other research points to one of the best road bands King had during his career, which was one of the few integrated bands at the time.
In the lead up to the May 14, 1970, date at Annie Merner Chapel, King played the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill on May 1 and at Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston on May 8. It’s on this swing up from Texas to Indiana that King stopped in Jacksonville. Stanton says that King’s performance at Annie Merner was by pure happenstance. The student activities committee had somehow gotten into contact with King’s management, who said King happened to have an open night in his schedule traveling through.
Stanton said that King and his band likely stayed at the old Jacksonville Holiday Inn (which was located between the current Applebee’s Grill + Bar and Turner Insurance building at 1717 West Morton Ave.). It had a massive ballroom and was the premier lodging spot in town at the time. Most musical acts who came through town would go back to the ballroom and “jam” and have a party where many of the local audience would likely join afterwards.
Due to Jacksonville’s population makeup, size and sentiment, integrated bands from out of town found the city to be a welcoming place while many surrounding towns still harbored backwards sentiments and had unspoken “sundown” laws and rules for Black Americans traveling through from out of town.
Stanton recalled that he and the late Mike Zimmers had met with King before and after the show at Annie Merner. He said the one thing that stood out to him was how kind and mannerly King was to everyone that he spoke to while at MacMurray. He said that King just appeared very grateful for being there.
“We had a lot of bands coming through at the time who had this or that in their [riders] as a part of their contracts. Mr. King kept his [contract] very simple for us, which we really appreciated. He asked for some water and soda for his band, and a meal afterwards. That was really easy and he thanked us for it.”
So, really, this was two watershed moments rolled into one: B.B. King at the top of his game, and MacMurray College coming together and bringing generational talent to a newly unified, co-educational institution at a time that is these days likely considered the golden years of the now defunct college’s history and at the height of Jacksonville’s post-World War II industry power and population.
King’s tour of MacMurray gets even more impressive. On May 17, 1970, King played Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana. He then crossed back over into Illinois and played for the infamous “Incident at Kickapoo Creek” festival — Central Illinois’ version of Woodstock — on May 31.
On September 10, 1970, King played for prisoners at the Cook County Jail in Chicago as a way to help with prison reform and morale, recording the seminal album, “Live In Cook County Jail.” He won his first Grammy Award in early 1971 and recorded one more hit album, before returning to the R&B charts for good.
King became a large part of children’s learning, something he had a passion for, performing on the second season of Sesame Street later in 1971. He made followup appearances in the subsequent decades. Still, his crown as “The King of the Blues” has remained, even these 8 years after his death.
For a moment, in the spring of 1970, the City of Jacksonville was able to experience King’s prowess and magic at a watershed time period of his career.
There’s more to this story, especially for me personally, but I’ll save that for another time.
Thank you to McKenna Servis at the Jacksonville Area Museum for help searching in the MacMurray Archives, to Willy Stanton and to the MacMurray College Classes of 1970-1972 for connecting this moment to the college and its history.