April 28, 2017 / 6:12 AM

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Genres - Rock

8 Prison Albums Not by Johnny Cash: B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, The Sex Pistols and More

'At San Quentin' by Johnny Cash (Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

On August 23 1969, Johnny Cash's iconic live album At San Quentin took the top spot on the Billboard charts and would stay there for another four weeks. Despite not being Cash's best prison show by a long shot—that honor goes to his At Folsom Prison, which was recorded earlier but released later—the success of At San Quentin seemed to touch off a craze in releasing live albums recorded at penitentiaries. Here's a selection of eight albums that weren't released by Cash.

08) Recorded Inside Louisiana State Prison by Freddy Fender (1975)

Johnny Cash wasn't the first guy to play a live show in prison, he was jus the first guy to have a lot of success selling it. Fellow country performer Freddy Fender recorded this album at the Louisiana State Prison in 1962...but didn't market it until 13 years later. The problem is Fender didn't even release his first LP until 1974 so the prisoners probably hadn't heard of him circa 1962. If there were prisoners. Although this was marketed as being performed in front of a live audience, not a peep can be heard from the crowd. You can't convince us that an entire prison just shut up so Fender could perform. We smell a rat. You get last place for trying to fool us with the vogue "in prison" label.

07) In Prison, In Person by Sonny James (1977)

Alright, so now we have a country performer that is convincingly playing in a real prison to a real audience of inmates. That does not a Cash make however. James follows a popular format, playing a few standards featuring tales of prison life ("In The Jailhouse Now," "Don't Let Me Die on Prison Land") as a joke for both listeners and prisoners. What makes Cash's prison albums so great is the stage banter however, as the onetime inmate packs a "f--k the police" attitude that really gets his audience going. James' collection is less peppy between tracks.

06) Live at Napa State Mental Hospital by The Cramps (1981)

We've seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest so we're willing to put mental institutions and prisons on the same level. The facility seems alright with allowing musical performances for its tenants however, and apparently performances from pyschobilly godfathers The Cramps at that. This concert only exists in video form, and the video was shot with one black-and-white camera and recorded with one microphone so it's really more enjoyable for the humor of The Cramps playing tracks such as "Human Fly" to a mentally ill audience than anything else.

05) Jail by Big Mama Thornton (1975)

There's a reason why you don't see many women releasing prison live albums: Men in prison are typically devoid of female interaction and hormones get the better of them (which is not to say women couldn't play at female penitentiaries). Big Mama Thornton is a dominating enough stage presence that she doesn't have to worry about getting interrupted. This album was actually compiled from two live performances at different prisons, but we'll cut Thornton a break. She finally gets to perform her hit, "Ball 'n' Chain"—which was made famous by Janis Joplin and The Holding Company—where it was made to be played: Jail.

04) Live at Chelmsford Top Security Prison by The Sex Pistols (1990)

This album was made during the Sex Pistols' peak of popularity, and one would think a prison mob would be the perfect audience for a band openly proclaiming a love for anarchy. Somewhat ironically, the band's viewers started a riot, which the group gladly left on the album when it was released during 1990. Although the sounds of fisticuffs and smashing glass is a charming contradiction to the unnatural calm of most prison albums, the rest of the recordings are even more raw than the sound fans have come to expect from the Pistols.

03) Live at The Alabama Women's Prison by Mack Vickery (1970)

We mentioned the constant catcalls that a female performer would be subjected to if she played a male penitentiary. Men perceive the problem as a good thing. Country performer Mack Vickery probably expected the lust of a prison full of females when he headed to the Alabama Women's Prison for his 1970 live album. Vickery sounds good airing out sexualized tunes such as "A Woman Who Walks on The Wild Side" and "Meat Man," a track he penned originally for Jerry Lee Lewis. His audience probably thought he did more than just sound good.

02) Live at Soledad Prison by John Lee Hooker (1972)

John Lee Hooker just has a voice that begs to be sung live in a prison. He's as good a blues guitarist as there was during that era and this collection finds him trading licks with his son, John Lee Hooker Jr. The best facet of this record however is Hooker's ability to bounce between the upbeat numbers that the the inmates want to hear ("Boogie Everywhere I Go") and the gut-wrenching blues that they live every day ("Serve Me Well to Suffer"). It's case-in-point why blues musicians are the best jailhouse rockers.

01) Live in Cook County Jail by B.B. King (1971)

The King of The Blues takes all of the factors discusses in previous passages and combines them into one hell of a live recording, Live in Cook County Jail. King handles the mournful facets in his classic rendition of "The Thrill Is Gone" and gets the place hopping with a medley of "3 O'Clock Blues" and "Darlin' You Know I Love You." His interactions with the crowd in his hometown of Chicago is lively and upbeat, plus he gives a public service announcement on never taking a hand to your woman. If there's one guy that can reform a hardened criminal, it might be B.B. King.

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