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Fact #107863


Short story:

Johnny Cash, June Carter, The Tennessee Two, The Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins begin rehearsals in the Banquetting Room of El Rancho Motel, Sacramento, California, USA, for their upcoming live show at the nearby Folsom Prison. An unwelcome distraction is provided by a fashion show taking place in an adjacent ballroom.

Full article:

EYE WITNESS : Johnny Cash records the live album At Fulsom Prison.
Feature compiled by Johnny Black.

Jan 10, 1968 : Johnny Cash and June Carter check into the El Rancho Motel in Sacramento, California, USA, to begin rehearsals for the live album Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison. They are joined later by The Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers, Johnny's father, Ray Cash, and record producer Bob Johnston.

Johnny Cash : The prison albums were natural ideas. By 1968, I'd been doing prison concerts for more than a decade, ever since Folsom Prison Blues got the attention of the inmates at the Huntsville, Texas, prison in 1957. They'd been putting on a rodeo every year, and that year the prison officials decided to let them have an entertainer, too; they asked for me.
(Source : Cash, The Autobiography, 1997)

Johnny Cash : I thought it (At Folsom Prison) would be a big album for me, but my motives were not money. I guess I wanted to record in a prison ever since I played Huntsville. I thought people would take notice of men that have been forgotten in everybody's mind. It would be good for them to hear the men's reaction. Columbia hadn't wanted to bother. They thought it would be too much red tape.
(Source : Johnny Cash : Winners Got Scars Too by Christopher S. Wren, Abacus Books, 1974)

Johnny Cash : I didn't get anywhere when I approached [Columbia producer/A and R man] Don Law with the idea. He just didn't like it. Then when Bob Johnston (producer of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and others) took over my production, I mentioned it to him, and he loved it. I called a preacher friend of mine in California, the Reverend Floyd Gressett, who went into Folsom to preach once a month and knew the officials there, and we set it up.
(Source : http://www.mixonline.com/mag/audio_classic_tracks_johnny/)

Bob Johnston (record producer) : Johnny came to me and said he’d always wanted to go and record a concert in a prison. I picked up the phone and called San Quentin and Folsom and I got through to Folsom first. I said "I wanna talk to the warden." He took the call and I said, "Guess what? Johnny Cash is gonna come and do a concert at your prison."

He said, "Oh my God, when?"

I said, "I dunno, I’ll let you talk to him." So I put the phone to Johnny and he fixed it up.

About a week later Johnny called me again and said Columbia had called him and said that if he did this record it would ruin his career and he’d never record for Columbia again. They’d also called me and said if I did it I’d be fired.

So what we had to do was, without telling them, we went out one night, caught a bus up there and we did the record. I came back and mixed it, and that was it pretty well.

Jim Marshall (photographer) : John called me in 1967 and said, "I'm doing this concert in Folsom Prison and I'm gonna get Columbia Records to pay for you to take some pictures." John was an advocate for prison reform.
(Source : interview in The Observer, 18 Jan 2009)

Robert Hilburn (journalist, Los Angeles Times) : I was trying to get a job at the L.A. Times doing freelance writing. The entertainment editor said, 'Give me some story ideas.' I saw that [Cash] was going to Folsom Prison. The idea that the man who wrote 'Folsom Prison Blues' was going to sing it at Folsom Prison, I thought, "You can't beat that". Somebody else at the paper said, "No, we don't want to give any space to that drug addict." He had been arrested in El Paso for smuggling nearly 1,000 pills [from Mexico], and his picture had been in newspapers in handcuffs. That was his image at that time.
(Source : interview in the Los Angeles Times, Oct 12, 2013)
Gene Beley (reporter, Ventura Star Free Press) : We arrived at the El Rancho Motel and checked in. Cash was nervous about the weather in Nashville. He feared that the snow and ice would make it impossible for Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers, The Tennessee Three, and Columbia's A&R man, Bob Johnston, to fly to Sacramento. So he called Nashville and found they had left and were laid over in San Francisco. While waiting for the others, we all met in one of our rooms.

Reverend Gressett said he had a favour to ask of John. "Johnny, I want you to hear a song written by Glen Sherley, an inmate in Folsom, serving five to life for armed robbery. You've been so busy that I haven't had a chance to tell you about it but I thought if you could mention tomorrow that you've heard the tape, it would please that ol' boy who wrote it."

"Does anyone have a tape recorder?" Cash asked.

"I do," I replied, and went to get the reel-to-reel Sony recorder that I had brought to record the concert for research purposes.

"All right, this is a take on 'Greystone Chapel,'" a deep voice, similar to Cash's own voice, said on the tape. Then the singing began:

Inside the walls of prison, my body may be,
But the Lord has set my soul free...

As the lyrics filled the room, accompanied by a bass beat from the prisoner's guitar, Cash's usual straight-faced, deep-creased cheeks began changing to a smile, with his eyes glowing, radiating enthusiasm.

"There's a Greystone chapel here at Folsom,
A house of worship in this den of sin.
You wouldn't think God had a place at Folsom,
But he's saved the soul of many lost men."

When the tape was finished, Cash said, "This has got to be recorded as a single, and I want to record it tomorrow on the album during the show." Cash began scribbling the words down in a notebook and tried singing the phrase, while beating out the rhythm with one hand on his knee, the other hand tapping a pen on the desk.

That evening Cash was dressed in a blue jumpsuit and cowboy boots when Bob Johnston and the other performers arrived.

"Do you ever work on a stool?" Johnston asked Cash.

"Yes, that's what I plan to do," Cash said.

"Are you going to have someone introduce you?"

"I thought I'd come out and introduce myself and sing."

"Great!" exclaimed Johnston. "Come out and say, 'I'm Johnny Cash!' They'll go wild!"
(Source : Feature by Gene Beley in The Virginia Quarterly Review, 2005)

Jan 11, 1968 : Johnny Cash, June Carter, The Tennessee Two, The Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins hold a rehearsal in the Banquetting Room of El Rancho Motel, Sacramento, California, USA, for their upcoming live show at the nearby Folsom Prison. An unwelcome distraction is provided by a fashion show taking place in an adjacent ballroom.

Jan 12, 1968 : Johnny Cash, June Carter, The Tennessee Two, The Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins hold their second day of rehearsals in the Banquetting Room of El Rancho Motel, Sacramento, California, USA, for their upcoming live show at the nearby Folsom Prison. During this day's rehearsal, California governor Ronald Reagan, who is at the hotel for an after-dinner speech, visits the band and offers his encouragement. A major part of the rehearsal is spent learning Greystone Chapel, a song written by Folsom Prison inmate Glen Sherley.

Jan 13, 1968 : Johnny Cash plays to 2,000 inmates at Folsom Prison, Folsom, California, USA. Although it was far from his first show at a prison (he'd been playing for inmates since the Texas Prison Rodeo at Huntsville in 1956) it will become his most famous, sometimes described as “the single most important day in the career” of Johnny Cash. Also on the bill are Carl Perkins and The Statler Brothers. The band's van and possessions are searched as they enter the prison but evidently none too thoroughly, as Cash is known to have used amphetamines to help energise his performance at the show. The visiting entourage also includes Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn and photographer Jim Marshall, who were paid to document the album for the liner notes. Cash opens the performance with Folsom Prison Blues.

Jim Marshall (photographer) : The granite walls in Folsom are about eight feet thick, and we had just gotten off the bus and gone through one giant gate into a holding area. Then we went through a second gate, and, when it clanked shut, John said, ‘Jim, there’s a feeling of permanence in that sound.’ After that, I started wondering when we were going to get out of there.
(Source : http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/the-day-johnny-cash-flipped-off-jim-marshall/)

Robert Hilburn (reporter, Los Angeles Times) : Columbia Records didn’t invite any press as they thought Cash would show up stoned. On top of that, two weeks before, some prisoners had taken a guard hostage, and there was still tension there. Officials told the inmates that if anyone left their chair during the concert they would stop the show, and there were guards with rifles on walkways above the stage.

Bob Johnston : We had a truck full of whatever we could take from Columbia Studios in Nashville. Charlie Bragg, who was on staff at Columbia, was the engineer. The show was done in the prison cafeteria, 200 feet in the air, and it was huge and echoing, and catwalks and hard surfaces everywhere. So, we put up as many mics as we could on the stage, sometimes a couple or three for each player, close in. There wasn’t any EQ’ing, either - we just went straight out to the recorders from there.
(Source : interview by Dan Daley, 2003, at http://willybrauch.de/In_Their_Own_Words/bobjohnston.htm)

Bob Johnston : The concert was down on a makeshift stage (in the mess hall) and we were recording up in the cafeteria. There were guards walking around up on the balcony with those dark glasses on so you couldn't see anything, and the guns were loaded.
(Source : Q magazine feature by Sylvie Simmons, 2006)

Robert Hilburn (journalist, Los Angeles Times) : John was nervous as he watched the opening acts. He was at a crossroads in his career, and if he failed, it would have gone downhill.
Jim Marshall (photographer) : They had two concerts, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, in the cafeteria. Folsom was maximum security. I had to sign a form saying that if I was taken captive, they would not negotiate for my release. But I was in the audience with the prisoners and it was not a problem. Carl Perkins played and The Statler Brothers. Then John walked on and said, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." The place went nuts.
(Source : interview in The Observer, 18 January, 2009)
Robert Hilburn : When he walked out and said, 'Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,’ and started Folsom Prison Blues, everyone knew he had nailed it. He didn’t come in with a 'greatest hits’ show: he came in with a set designed for the prisoners, to make them laugh and give them hope. Before that day I saw country music primarily as entertainment, but Cash wanted his music to lift people up. There was a purpose to it.
(Source : interview in Daily Telegraph, 12 Dec 2013, by Tim Burrows)

Bob Johnston : It did get pretty hairy there for a while. When he did the thing about "I shot a man in Reno" and those guys were up on the chairs, cheering, I thought, "Man, I should have brought Tammy Wynette and George Jones here" - anyone but Johnny Cash.
Jim Marshall (photographer) : He believed that he was just making the public more aware of the conditions in the prison… He saw himself as an entertainer who could make a difference in their lives, even for an hour.
(Source : http://www.popmatters.com/feature/65735-prisoners-are-the-best-audience-the-challenge-of-at-folsom-prison/)
Robert Hilburn : He always said he wasn’t on drugs in Folsom Prison, but look at that face! Many country musicians did drugs then, but he was on them all the time, trying to block out his harsh childhood: his brother had died when he was growing up on a farm in Arkansas.
Johnny Cash : There are scenes as sharp in my memory as if it were last night. The reaction from the cons when I introduced myself, the pain and hopelessness of a soul beaten down, of failure, of failure to stay free of the system, of failure to be able to ignore today’s pain. But there was no calendar inside the cafeteria on that day, January 13, 1968.
(Source : http://www.bmi.com/news/entry/Tales_from_the_Top_Johnny_Cashs_At_Folsom_Prison)
Johnny Cash : It was one of the biggest thrills because of the reaction I got. I'd been interested in prisoners because I played the prisons. It looked like it was taking the soul out of them, or something. A lot of them just had that living-dead look on their faces.
(Source : Johnny Cash : Winners Got Scars Too by Christopher S. Wren, Abacus Books, 1974)

Jim Marshall (photographer) : He felt kinship with the prisoners. That's why he did Greystone Chapel, which was written by a convict, Glen Sherley, who was in Folsom at the time. The prisoners respected him, too. If John would have said, "Follow me, we're gonna bust out," they would have done it. They appreciated him just doing the show. White, black, Latino prisoners, everybody.
The atmosphere was electric: it was one of the greatest concerts I have ever been to.
(Source : interview in The Observer, 18 January, 2009)

Bob Johnston : I don't think it could have come off with anybody else. He went inside there believing in what he was doing. He had a lot of love and a lot of compassion and they gave it back to him. You can't buy that.
(Source : Johnny Cash : Winners Got Scars Too by Christopher S. Wren, Abacus Books, 1974)

March 1 1968 : Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison is released by Columbia Records in the USA. Columbia at this time, however, is focusing on pop and psychedelic rock releases rather than country music, so very little promotional effort is put into the album.
Bob Johnston (record producer) : You don’t have to print all of this but I used to get some money from Columbia and I’d go and do my own little tour. We had our distributorship in each city, so I got out there and I went to LA and I was talking to the head of the distributorship and I said, "What about Cash?"

He said, "Didn’t make it. Nobody liked it."

I said, "Can I see the record?"

He said, "Sure." And we pulled out about a hundred records and there, right at the very bottom was Cash at Fulsom.

So I said, "Well, listen man, you really tried and I’m grateful."

He said, "OK Bob, see you around."

So I called Chuck Gregory (??), a friend of mine in San Francisco, and he came to LA and we went to the two biggest record distribution guys in the United States, and in about four hours we found them in an Italian bar. Chuck walked up and said, "I hear you didn’t like the Cash record." They said, "What Cash record?"

So we played it for them and it went into both of their chains. I got a $2,000 draft from the bank and a bottle of Dom Perignon and I went back and gave it to that sonovabitch, and I said, "That’s for breakin’ the record, but you’re gonna get your legs and arms broken if you don’t go out and make it a national hit." He did.

A year later we were at the convention and he was telling the story of how he broke the Cash record and I went up and told the real story. I’ll always be grateful to Chuck Gregory for that, because he’s the one who really broke the Cash record by going after the distributors.

May 25 1968 : A newly-recorded live version of Fulsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash enters the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart, but sales will fall away sharply two weeks later, after the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy causes radio stations to drop the single from playlists because of the line, "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."