Johnny Cash A Guy Who Got Lucky

Johnny Cash A Guy Who Got Lucky  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Julien's Auctions.

One thousand prisoners showed up in the mess hall of San Quentin State Prison to see country singer Johnny Cash perform in concert on Feb. 23, 1969.  The prison was California’s oldest maximum-security penitentiary and most everyone seemed on edge about the pending gig.  San Quentin was the place where Johnny played his first-ever prison concert on Jan. 1, 1958

The response was riotous.  Guards raised their rifles as prisoners climbed on top of the dining tables yelling and cheering.

This time around the country singer was recovering from a relapse with prescription drugs.  As he walked onto the stage that night he already felt a bond with the long term inmates.  They like him were battling their own “hounds of hell.”  How it would ultimately turnout was anybody’s guess. 

Johnny was funny and upbeat.  It took him no time at all to charm the crowd.  Midway through the performance he sang "San Quentin," a song he wrote especially for this audience. 

The response was riotous.  Guards raised their rifles as prisoners climbed on top of the dining tables yelling and cheering. 

“All I had to do was say 'Break!’ and they were gone…” Johnny said.  He rode the wave that night and it all turned out fine.

Johnny told the crowd which included death row inmates that he was just a guy who’d happened to get lucky with some chords, melodies, and lyrics. 

He and wife June Carter Cash also sang "Wanted Man" written especially for the concert by Bob Dylan.

Toward the end of the evening Johnny spoke about his Christian faith and how he and June had been to Israel and visited the Wailing Wall and the Way of the Cross.

When he finished talking he sang "He Turned the Water into Wine."  Prison guards were dumbstruck as they witnessed hardened criminals openly weep.

Feeding off the crowd Johnny’s voice was described as wild and raw that night, like he too was housed behind bars.

"At San Quentin" is the recording of the live concert.  It has been called one of the most mesmerizing live records in American history.  The concert was also filmed by Granada Television. 

The previous year, Johnny’s recorded performance "At Folsom Prison" stayed on the Billboard chart for 39 weeks.  "At San Quentin" outsold the Folsom concert and remained at the top of the chart for four consecutive weeks.

On Dec. 5, Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills, Calif., featured a selection of Cash’s personal belongings in the Johnny Cash: Property from his Life and Career auction.  Everything from concert programs, guitars and photos to handwritten lyrics and signed checks went up for sale.

Among the items was the San Quentin, blue denim, jumpsuit Johnny wore during his rehearsal performance at San Quentin State Prison in February of 1969.  The jumpsuit sold for $50,000. 

The outfit can be seen in Jim Marshall’s photograph of Cash taken during the filming of the rehearsal.  It shows Johnny raising his middle finger to a camera crew.  The suit includes a poster of Johnny wearing the jumpsuit. 

Johnny Cash

Photograph; vintage Barrie Wentzell black-and white; number 33 of 50; signed by Wentzell; 1966; 14 inches by 11 inches;  $544. 

San Quentin Poster; silkscreen; from Feb. 23 concert; created by prison officials and posted within prison walls; 13 inches by 10 inches;  $20,000.

Passport; issued to Johnny on March 28, 1968; used through 1973; 20-page booklet; 6 inches by 3 ¾ inches;  $21,875.

Martin D-28 Guitar; stage-used; signed; used during the 1980s; gift to Johnny’s friend Bill Miller in 1989; inscribed by singer with the first four lines of “I Walk the Line;”  $50,000.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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