While Johnny Cash’s iconic live recorded performance made Folsom Prison famous in its own right, he is not the only celebrity to have been inside its walls.
Read about three performers of notoriety that served time in Folsom Prison – one who was a celebrity prior to his arrest, one who - against all odds - found fame during his incarceration at Folsom Prison, and one who became famous following his reform from a life of crime.
R&B star of the late 1970’s/ early 1980’s, Rick James’ song “Super Freak” topped the charts after it’s 1981 release. His music is, unfortunately, not what he is always remembered for. James had a reputation of partying and using very hard drugs, having reached an all time low when he was arrested in the early 1990’s for the imprisonment and sexual assault of two women.
He was found guilty and served his 3 year sentence at Folsom Prison, where he felt grateful that his arrest had stopped him from continuing down a perilous path, saying, “Prison has been a blessing in disguise. Otherwise I probably would have been dead by now.”
Following his release James picked back up on his musical career, but had a stroke in 1997 that made a comeback impossible. Ultimately, James died at the age of 56 from heart failure.
Did you know?
Early in his musical career Rick James was in a band with Neil Young called The Mynah Birds
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While serving time for armed robbery, Sherley had the unique distinction of becoming famous while serving time in Folsom Prison. The night before Johnny Cash’s iconic performance at Folsom Prison, he was presented with a song about the prison chapel that was written by Sherley. In the words of Johnny Cash:
“The night before I was going to record at Folsom prison, I got to the motel and a preacher friend of mine brought me a tape of a song called ‘Greystone Chapel.’ He said a convict had written it about the chapel at Folsom. I listened to it one time and I said, ‘I’ve got to do this in the show tomorrow.’ So I stayed up and learned it, and the next day the preacher had him in the front row. I announced, ‘This song was written by Glen Sherley.’ It was a terrible, terrible thing to point him out among all those cons, but I didn’t think about that then. Everybody just had a fit, screaming and carrying on.”
One year later Johnny Cash helped Sherley get another song, “Portrait of a Woman”, recorded by Eddy Arnold. Soon after Sherley was transferred to San Quentin prison where he was the first inmate to ever record an album while incarcerated. Cash helped arrange for session musicians who came all the way from Nashville to record with Glen.
Once released from prison, Sherley found success and fame under the wing of Johnny Cash but his criminal tendencies and violent disposition got the better of him, forcing Cash to fire Sherley from his tour. Sadly, Sherley fell into drug and alcohol abuse and ultimately took his own life in 1978.
Did you know?
Glen Sherley had no idea that Cash was going to play his song that day. It was a complete surprise to him.
Danny Trejo found fame after retiring from a long career as a criminal. Born in Echo Park, California, Trejo was only 8 years the first time he smoked marijuana and only 12 the first time he shot heroin. His uncle, older than him by 6 years, was his mentor in crime, teaching him how to rob and fueling his addictions.
While Trejo talks openly about having robbed banks, all of his arrests were drug related – and there were a lot of them. He was in and out of the system for years, serving time in many California prisons, including Folsom.
During a three month stint of solitary confinement in 1968 for taking part in a riot at Soledad Prison in which guards were hurt, Trejo made a deal with God to live a clean and grateful life if he was able to come away from the incident without being sentenced to the gas chamber. One year later he was released and has held to his part of the bargain these many years. He has since been clean and sober, crime free, and a drug abuse counselor.
The 73 year old actor says, "Everybody asks me, 'How do you stay so young?' I consider myself 48 years old. That's when my life started.”
Did you know?
Trejo got his first acting role because of his physical skills, rather than his acting skills. A screenwriter – also an ex-con – had seen Trejo box before and hired him to coach one of the actors for a boxing scene. He was ultimately given a small part in the movie which acted as a jumping off point for what has become a very successful career.
While these three celebrities lived very different lives and were convicted for different crimes, they had one thing in common: a stay in Folsom Prison.
Other Well Known Men Who Have Served Time at Folsom Prison
Over the years, there have been many recognizable names on the list of Folsom Prison inmates. Some were famous men who paid their debt to society at Folsom Prison while some were simply notorious for the crimes that landed them there. How many of these names do your recognize?
- Timothy Leary
- Suge Knight
- Edmund Kemper
- Leo Ryan
- Charles Manson
- Erik Menendez
- Eldridge Cleaver
- Bobby Purify
- Edward Bunker
- Shorty Rossi
- James Mitose
- Ed Morrell
While some of these are very notorious names, the biggest name to enter Folsom Prison belonged to a man who chose to spend time there: Johnny Cash. From notorious inmates to legendary musicians, Folsom Prison may just have one of the most interesting histories around.