Six years before Johnny Cash recorded his hugely influential live album within the walls of San Quentin prison, western balladeer Ford gave angelic voice to killers, robbers and all manner of low-life on the album, We Gather Together (1963), credited to Tennessee Ernie Ford with The San Quentin Prison Choir.
The idea came about after Ford – best known for 50’s chart-toppers Sixteen Tons and The Ballad Of Davy Crockett, received fan mail from an inmate who claimed his biggest regret at being incarcerated was that he would miss going to the crooner’s concerts.
The letter also revealed that some of the faith-driven lags often sang some of the star’s own hits in rehearsals.
Ford lobbied the prison authorities to allow the record to happen, but it took some time to get the go-ahead, as at first there were suspicions that the singer was an unwitting player in an elaborate escape plot!
When the project eventually received the green light, the prisoners themselves, plus a small handful of warder choristers, were invited to select the hymns, with most numbers chosen being songs of redemption: Are Ye Able Said The Master, Somebody Did A Golden Deed, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.
Money from sales of the LP went towards post-release rehabilitation programmes (not much use to the lifers), government funding for which was all but non-existent in the early 60s.
Nearly three decades later, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart was so moved on hearing the choir while visiting a friend behind the 22-foot-high walls that he financed and produced a second album of jailbird testifying, He’s All I Need (1992).
Ernie Ford died on 17 October 1991 – 36 years to the day after the release of his biggest hit, Sixteen Tons.