By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Singer Johnny Cash and Folsom State Prison have been linked ever since Cash’s 1968 performance and the hit record that emerged from the endeavor. While Cash may have gotten the headlines, he wasn’t the first major recording artist to perform at the prison.
After becoming the first American singer to stage two command performances for British royalty, two days later Sammy Davis Jr. made the trek to Folsom State Prison to become the first major artist to perform at the institution. It was November 1961.
Ebony magazine documented the visit in their January 1962 issue.
“At the request of California’s Gov. Pat Brown, the diminutive showman had been given a motorcycle escort on the 25-mile route from Sacramento to Folsom,” the magazine reported. “Rambling through an hour and five minutes of his repertoire, in the first appearance of a major entertainer at the prison, Davis was backed by his conductor-pianist George Rhodes and drummer Michael Silva.”
According to the magazine, there were 2,200 inmates at the performance.
“(Davis) charmed his audience by singing ‘Ole Black Magic,’ ‘Birth of the Blues’ and a medley, received an extra burst of applause for this tap dancing, imitated voices and, just for kicks, beat drums. After the show, Davis taped an interview for the prison’s (inmate) radio station,” Ebony reported.
Davis had a small role in the movie “Reprieve,” later renamed “Convicts 4,” that would be filming at the prison the following month. He was also starring in a regular television show as well as a new radio show.
He pushed his entertainment peers to reach out to penitentiaries and perform for the inmates.
“Sammy Davis Jr., urging other entertainers to follow his lead after entertaining … inmates at Folsom prison: ‘This is something that ought to be done. We should be ashamed of ourselves for not doing it before,’” he told Jet magazine, Jan. 11, 1962.
Davis said he believed part of a prisoner’s rehabilitation should be the reminder that he or she has not been forgotten by society.
Other top performers visit state prisons
When a chaplain at San Quentin reached out to Frank Sinatra to perform for inmates, he accepted. He also brought the entire Count Basie Orchestra along for the show.
“At this point in his affluent career, he responds more quickly to a request to perform at a benefit concert than an opportunity to make money,” CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reported.
“I enjoy being with the public almost under any circumstance regardless of where it is or why so I do my utmost to fulfill that responsibility as a performer and a man of public life.
At the height of her career, comedian Phyllis Diller was invited to help the drama workshop, Le Cage, at San Quentin. She did a stand-up routine, answered questions and gave pointers. The workshop, also known as The Players, was founded by inmate Rich “Rick” Cluchey who was inspired by a play he saw in the prison in 1957. Read more about Cluchey.
“Before her rise to fame, she worked in Oakland as an advertising copywriter and then as a writer at radio-station KROW. In fact, it was her friendship and working relationship with Wanda Ramey, a female pioneer in the Bay Area’s broadcast industry, that got her the gig at San Quentin,” reported the Marin Independent Journal, Jan. 8, 2018. “In 1960, Ramey had filmed a report about inmates at San Quentin that kicked off a lengthy relationship between the two. The night Phyllis performed she was given an over-sized honorary key to the prison.”
Capitol Records recording artist “Tennessee” Ernie Ford cut an album with the choir at San Quentin according to Billboard Magazine, May 11, 1963.
“Four years before Johnny Cash recorded his famous album at San Quentin, Ernie took mobile recording equipment to San Quentin where he and the prison choir recorded a gospel album,” according to Southwest Shuffle, a book by Rich Kienzle.
“One of the best things you can do with a song is bring comfort to people who need it,” Ford said. “Some of the people who needed it most were the prisoners.”
Actress, singer and model Eartha Kitt answered the call to help rehabilitate inmates through acting and also pitched in to help the drama workshop as well as perform for the inmates in the 1960s.
In 1974, when the nonprofit group Bread & Roses Presents was formed, she visited San Quentin as part of their show for inmates. Moved by the reactions she received from the inmates, she continued to help. During a concert tour in Australia that same year, she took a break to perform for inmates at Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison.
In early 1980s, she again returned to San Quentin to perform.
“This was New Year’s morning, 1980, and while the rest of the nation tuned in to the Rose Bowl, two dozen of us – reporters and musicians – filed into San Quentin for its annual New Year’s Day show,” reported the Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 17, 1980. “This was a concert folks would have paid good money to get into: Eartha Kitt, Maria Muldaur, Norton Buffalo, Donald Kinsey and the Chosen Ones. Most of the musicians had played New Year’s Eve concerts in San Francisco the night before. Norton Buffalo had been on his feet for two days. Drained, drowsy, but eager, they were all here as volunteers to perform for free.
“The roster of musicians who donate their time and talent to Bread & Roses festivals reads like a supertars’ honor roll: Peter, Paul, and Mary; Pete Seeger; Joan Baez; Graham Nash; David Crosby; Arlo Guthrie; Richie Havens; Boz Scaggs; Carlos Santana; Country Joe McDonald; Maria Muldaur; Joni Mitchell; The Persuasions; Herbie Hancock; Hoyt Axton; Mimi Farina; Kris Kristofferson; Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; Dizzie Gillespie; and David Grisman. Each year the festival is broadcast live to prisons throughout California, and last fall National Public Radio carried the concert from coast to coast,” the Monitor reported.
Actor Lee Marvin advised inmates as part of the drama workshop.
“In the early 1960s, Marvin met Dr. Harry Willner when the actor was cast in the TV drama ‘People Need People.’ It was based on Willner’s breakthrough experiences using group therapy to help traumatized war veterans. Marvin gave a harrowing, Emmy-nominated performance. He also became good friends with Willner, and helped him launch a version of the story to help prisoners in San Quentin,” according to Dwayne Epstein, author of “Lee Marvin: Point Blank.”
It was March 1962 when the actor started advising the inmate actors. The curtain went up in April.
Marvin was “reluctant about … publicity surrounding the prison show. … Marvin preferred to downplay the show and his involvement in it. … He did it because he believed in it, not from any positive buzz he could generate from it,” Espstein wrote. Marvin agreed to only a brief report on CBS Radio.
“This week one of Hollywood’s leading stars entered San Quentin prison,” Ralph Story said on his CBS radio show, April 16, 1962. “The star was Lee Marvin. …. Marvin’s job (was) advising the 30 convict actors (who) were dedicated … recognizing perhaps that this is an historic occasion, the first pre-Broadway tryout to be done in a prison. … So much of what happens in Hollywood is done for affect, it’s refreshing to report that Lee Marvin’s volunteer assignment as dramatic coach at San Quentin is something he … talks about with great reserve.”
Blues musicians John Lee Hooker and his son, John Lee Hooker Jr., performed at the Correctional Training Facility at Soledad in 1972. The concert was recorded and released as “Live at Soledad Prison.”
Much like Cluchey after seeing a play in San Quentin, it was a life-changing experience when Merle Haggard saw Johnny Cash perform a New Year’s Day show in 1959. Haggard served time in San Quentin for attempted robbery from 1958 until 1960.
“I didn’t care for his music before that – I thought it was corny,” Haggard told Rolling Stone Magazine, May 5, 2016. “But he had the crowd right in the palm of his hand.”
Haggard pursued his music career and became friends with Cash. In 1972, Gov. Ronald Reagan pardoned Haggard as a “routine” matter. In 1982, Haggard performed for President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. ”I hope the President will be as pleased with my performance today as I was with his pardon 10 years ago,” Haggard told the New York Times, March 8, 1982.
Many more actors, artists and bands performed for San Quentin inmates over the years including BB King in 1990 and Metallica in 2003.
Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, performed inside Folsom State Prison in 2011. “I’m really emotional about this,” she said at the time, according to KCRA 3 news. “It’s become a Cash family tradition.”
In 2017, Common and Residente performed at Calipatria State Prison. Common performed at numerous prisons that year as part of his Hope and Redemption Tour. More recently, Los Tigres del Norte performed for inmates at Folsom State Prison in April 2018.