Since Sarah Bernhardt and Harry Houdini performed in prison in the early 1900s, artists have been helping rehabilitate the incarcerated in California.
Probably the most famous performance is that of Johnny Cash at Folsom State Prison in 1968. But, he wasn’t the first major artist to perform behind the granite walls.
Only two days after becoming the first American singer to stage two command performances for British royalty, Sammy Davis Jr. was the first major artist to perform at Folsom prison. It was November 1961.
Governor invitation leads to performance
“At the request of California Governor Pat Brown, the showman had been given a motorcycle escort on the 25-mile route from Sacramento to Folsom,” Ebony magazine reported, January 1962. “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 incarcerated men gathered for the performance.
“(Davis) charmed his audience by singing ‘Ole Black Magic,’ ‘Birth of the Blues’ and a medley. (He) received an extra burst of applause for tap dancing. After the show, Davis taped an interview for the prison’s radio station,” Ebony reported.
Davis reaches out to fellow performers
Encouraging his entertainment peers to perform in prisons, he saw it as a tool for rehabilitation.
“(Davis urged) 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, January 11, 1962.
Davis said he believed part of a prisoner’s rehabilitation should be the reminder they have not been forgotten by society.
Sinatra croons for San Quentin
A San Quentin chaplain turned to Frank Sinatra for help with a similar endeavor. Sinatra accepted, convincing the entire Count Basie Orchestra to come 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,” reported Walter Cronkite for CBS News.
“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,” Sinatra said.
Top female comedian coaches drama workshop
At the height of her career, comedian Phyllis Diller was invited to help the San Quentin drama workshop. Following a stand-up comedy routine, she answered questions and offered acting tips. 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.
“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, January 8, 2018. “In 1960, Ramey 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.”
Gospel album features incarcerated choir
Capitol Records recording artist Tennessee Ernie Ford cut an album with the San Quentin choir, 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.”
Eartha Kitt’s rehabilitative legacy
Actress, singer, and model Eartha Kitt became a longstanding prison volunteer. She also pitched in with the drama workshop as well as performed for the incarcerated in the 1960s.
In 1974, when the nonprofit group Bread & Roses Presents was formed, she visited San Quentin as part of their show. Moved by the reactions she received from the incarcerated audience, she continued helping. 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, January 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. Each year the festival is broadcast live to prisons throughout California. Last fall, National Public Radio carried the concert from coast to coast.”
Lee Marvin coaches actors, performs show about trauma therapy
Actor Lee Marvin advised those enrolled in drama workshop as well as performed a show about dealing with trauma.
“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. (His job was) advising the 30 convict actors (who) were dedicated the first pre-Broadway tryout to be done in a prison. (Since) so much of what happens in Hollywood is (for show), it’s refreshing to report Lee Marvin’s volunteer assignment as dramatic coach at San Quentin is something he (sparingly) talks about.”
Other performers continue tradition
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. 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.
Many more actors, artists and bands performed for San Quentin 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, Residente performed at Calipatria State Prison. Meanwhile, Common performed at numerous prisons the same year as part of his Hope and Redemption Tour. More recently, Los Tigres del Norte performed at Folsom State Prison in April 2018.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR