By the mid-1960s, renegade country singer Johnny Cash’s personal and professional lives were becoming increasingly erratic. His record sales were in a slump, his addiction to prescription pills helped destroy his first marriage to Vivian Liberto, mother of Cash’s four daughters, and he was arrested for various misdemeanors, including an October 1965 bust in Texas when narcotics officers found more than 1,110 tablets and capsules hidden in his guitar case. While picking wildflowers five months earlier in Starkville, Mississippi, Cash was arrested for trespassing. While none of the arrests led to more than a single night behind bars, Cash began to turn his life around with the help of singer-comedienne June Carter, whom he would marry on March 1st, 1968.
Just prior to tying the knot, Cash and his wife, joined by his band the Tennessee Three, and rock legend Carl Perkins, played a pair of shows at California’s maximum security Folsom State Prison. Cash’s interest in playing prisons had been spurred while he was stationed in West Germany, serving in the U.S. Air Force Security Service. Cash had watched a dramatic 1951 film called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, and was inspired to write what would become one of his most recognizable songs, the 1955 hit, “Folsom Prison Blues.” The resulting LP, At Folsom Prison, marked a turning point in Cash’s career, becoming one of his best-selling albums to that point. But it wasn’t the Man in Black’s first concert appearance at the prison. In 1957, he played to inmates at Huntsville State Prison in Texas, and followed that with his first concert at San Quentin, also in California. On New Year’s Day in 1959, as well as the same day one year later, Cash played to an audience in San Quentin that included a young inmate named Merle Haggard, who was serving time for robbery and an escape attempt. Haggard would repeatedly tell the story that seeing Cash play at San Quentin was one of the factors that helped him get his life straightened out so he could pursue a music career.
The huge commercial and critical success of At Folsom Prison allowed Cash to record another live set at a prison, and San Quentin proved the obvious choice. In February 1969, Cash recorded a live album and a TV special for the U.K.’s Granada Television. With June Carter and the Carter Family, Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers in tow, Cash performed now-classic hits such as “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” the true story of “Starkville City Jail,” and two songs that made their stage debut during the concert: “San Quentin” (performed and included on the resultant LP twice) and the Shel Silverstein-penned “A Boy Named Sue,” which would top out at Number Two on the pop chart, becoming his biggest crossover hit ever. The latter was reportedly a last-minute surprise to the TV crew and the band. While not as highly regarded as the At Folsom Prison performance, At San Quentin, which was released this week in 1969, topped both the country LP chart and the Billboard 200, becoming Cash’s first album to do so. It has since sold more than three million copies.
Another of the key performances from the album was “Wanted Man,” written with folk-rock icon Bob Dylan especially for Cash to perform at the prison. A slower, outlaw version of the rapid-fire “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “Wanted Man” name-checks cities, states, and even a few women, that are looking for him, although the whys and wherefores are left to the imagination. The lyrics could also be seen as a reflection of the high demand Cash’s (and indeed Dylan’s) fans had of him at the time, perhaps offering some explanation for the excesses that were weighing him down. “I’ve had all that I’ve wanted of a lot of things I’ve had and a lot more than I needed of some things that turned out bad,” he sings.
Cash introduces the song on At San Quentin by saying that he and Dylan wrote it “last week” at Cash’s house. The commanding performance at the prison was backed by the angelic Carter Family harmonies. In 1991, Cash would record the song again for The Mystery of Life, his final album on Mercury Records. The song had previously been covered by George Thorogood and the Destroyers on the 1982 LP, Bad to the Bone.
The San Quentin concert was also historic for another reason. Thanks to Cash’s assertion that the Granada TV crew was blocking the inmates’ view of the stage, he “saluted” them with an extended middle finger. The moment was captured for posterity in the infamous shot snapped by photographer Jim Marshall.