Focus on Photography: Going Behind the Portraits

In conjunction with the museum’s current exhibit, “Fine Portraits, Fine People,” we present Anca Colbert’s recent Ojai Quarterly essay on the art of photographic portraits, which focuses on Ojai’s own Guy Webster.

A portrait! What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound.

Charles Baudelaire, 1859

 

By Anca Colbert

The celebrated Paris Photo Show came to Los Angeles for the second year last April. The event, held at Paramount Studios in the heart of Hollywood, attracted the interest of the press, celebrities and a public eager to look, get informed and collect new artworks. “Portraits of Our Time,” a monumental limited-edition book of Annie Leibovitz’s work just released by Taschen Books, was drawing crowds and creating a sensation at their booth.On the heels of the two previous fairs held in January, the Photo L.A. show and the Classic Photo show, the huge success of this international event confirms the strength of the photographic art market, and the growing importance of Los Angeles as a city that supports this young and popular art form.

Bob Dylan, Hollywood, 1960s. Photo: Guy Webster
Bob Dylan, Hollywood, 1960s. Photo: Guy Webster

In the Spring 2014 Issue of the Ojai Quarterly we considered the accelerated evolution of photography as a technique and as an art, and the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. We continue our series on photography by taking a closer look at photographic portraits.

Painted portraits were part of art culture for centuries. To this day, Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” remains the most celebrated and mysterious of all paintings. But ever since the birth of photography around 1850, portraits in the most accessible and democratic of all art forms have captivated a wider audience, always hungry for more images, and in recent times with an ever-increasing appetite for personalities. From Nadar and Stieglitz to Gertrude Kasebier, Man Ray, August Sander, Cartier-Bresson, Henri Lartigue, Brassai, Diane Arbus, Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, we all have our favorites.

So, what’s the fascination with portraits? And what exactly are they? Are portraits able to capture the psychological character of the sitter? How “personal” is that image of a person? Portraiture is commonly regarded as a window into the soul of the sitter. But is it? Could it be a window into the soul of the photographer?

Photographic portraits, which fast surpassed the popularity of traditional painted portraits once the technology was available, are perceived as a way to capture reality. But how much do they, really? Whether in studio settings or in photojournalism circumstances, a psychological layer adds a twist to the situation, as Richard Avedon plainly put it: “A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he is being photographed.” As we look at a portrait, we look at the dynamic interaction between an artist and a sitter, and at the energy in that space between them.

Barbra Streisand in the Hollywood Bowl, 1960s. Photo: Guy Webster.
Barbra Streisand at the Hollywood Bowl, 1960s. Photo: Guy Webster.

Photographic portraits are an interpretation of the reality of the person being photographed, as imagined by the photographer, and as perceived by the viewer. It’s all illusion, played by a trio.

Ojai is famous for being home to artists and creatives. Among the distinguished photographers who have lived and worked here are Horace Bristol (renowned for his photos of Dust Bowl migrants), and more recently Cindy Pitou Burton, Donna Granata and Guy Webster.

Guy Webster moved to Ojai 34 years ago. While he still commutes to his studio in Venice for weekly shoots of celebrities, he loves his family life in this heavenly valley, where he rides one of his many motorcycles every day. Guy loves speed, and motorcycles are his lifelong passion.

One of the early innovators of rock ‘n’ roll photography, Guy started by shooting album covers and billboards in the 1960s for groups that included the Rolling Stones, the Mamas and the Papas and the Beach Boys among numerous others.

As the primary celebrity photographer for hundreds of worldwide magazines, Webster has captured a vast range of talent in the world of music and film, from Igor Stravinsky to Truman Capote, Alan Ginsberg, Zubin Mehta, Alan Watts, Sean Connery, Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer to his longtime Ojai friends Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson.

Born and raised in Beverly Hills, Guy became a photographer by accident. It was 1961; he had just graduated from Yale and gotten into the Army. While stationed in Carmel, he volunteered to be a photography instructor without knowing anything about photography. He spent the night reading up on the subject, and the next day started teaching it! Later, back in Los Angeles, he had connections with some rock ‘n’ roll groups and record companies. The photograph that made him famous was the 1965 record cover of the album California Dreamin’ for The Mamas and The Papas: he shot them in a bathtub. After that, Guy says everybody in Hollywood wanted him to photograph them; it was the beginning of his stellar 50-year career.

The essence of photography is light and shadow. Guy Webster’s portraits speak that language fluently. I brought up my keen interest in the light quality of his portraits, particularly in his black and white work; he was pleased to tell me about his love for Italian painters, Caravaggio in particular. Caravaggio’s illumination of his subjects, known as Tenebrism, is a technique similar to chiaroscuro by which strong contrasts of light and dark are used to add emotion and drama to an image as if seen through a spotlight effect or illuminated by a candle. Other Baroque painters used that technique with memorable results, notably Rembrandt, Rubens, La Tour and Vermeer.

 

John Nava (Menorca, Spain, 1974) by Guy Webster
John Nava (Menorca, Spain, 1974) by Guy Webster

Guy Webster’s portrait of his friend John Nava offers an interesting reflection: double take on the painter living in Ojai, world renowned for his portrait work. Webster catptured the interplay of light and shadow in his old farm house in Spain, every subtle transition in the fabric of the shirt and on the wood of the chair, and the profile of the painter gazing intensely at what we cannot see.

In his early portraits of Barbara Streisand and Bob Dylan, it’s interesting to note the light glowing around their throat area, a subtle indication of their golden voices.

Igor Stravinsky at home in Beverly Hills, 1967. Photo by Guy Webster.
Igor Stravinsky at home in Beverly Hills, 1967. Photo: Guy Webster.

Columbia Records sent Guy on an assignment to photograph Igor Stravinsky at his home: he captured the composer, whom he immensely admired, in a very close-up frontal shot and at an angle focusing the light on the composer’s large forehead, clearly intending to give a hint of his genius.

A savvy storyteller, Guy exudes intelligence and calm. There is kindness, even sweetness, to his portrait work with celebrities — no doubt a reflection of his own temperament projected onto his sitters.

 

 

“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”

— Richard Avedon

 

Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963. Photo by Dan Budnik, courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery.
Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963. Photo: Dan Budnik, courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery.

 

The Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica has been one of the finest galleries to exhibit classic and modern photography in the Los Angeles area since opening their space at Bergamot Station twenty years ago. Fetterman has a penchant for portrait photography, and his recent show “Portraits of the 20th Century” focused precisely on this theme. I asked Peter to share some thoughts about one portrait in the show that particularly moved me, the one of Martin Luther King Jr. by Dan Budnik:

“I have always had a great personal interest in civil rights photography. In my research for images for MLK for a civil rights exhibition, I came across this one. It was 1994. I had never heard of the photographer. He had fallen through the cracks. I found him, met him and discovered an untapped great archive. This is the greatest King portrait ever, taken moments after he had finished his greatest speech, ‘I have a Dream.’ Tears come to my eyes as I write this now, so many years later.”

In my book of art life, to be moved to tears by an image is always a good sign. Art has that power to touch us deeply. As the fascination with portraits retains its appeal with art lovers and remains an essential form of expression for professional photographers, photography continues its irresistible ascension as the visual art form of our times.

 

Anca Colbert is an Ojai-based art consultant and curator; the editor and publisher of Arts About Town, a guide to the arts life and activities in Ojai; and the arts columnist for the Ojai Quarterly. This column first appeared in the Quarterly’s Summer 2014 issue. Republished with permission.

Gene Lees in Ojai: Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars

By Mark Lewis

Ojai prides itself on its small-town charm, but it is not so small that everyone actually knows everyone. A person can live here for three decades — as Gene Lees did — without being widely recognized. So when Lees died in April 2010 at the age of 82, his friends mourned, and his Foothill Road neighbors took note, but his passing was not big news in his adopted hometown. The Ojai Valley News did not run an obituary.

Elsewhere, it was a different story. The New York Times hailed Lees as “a prolific jazz critic and historian who approached his subject with a journalist’s vigor and an insider’s understanding.” The Washington Post eulogized him as “a multi-talented writer who left a lasting mark on jazz as a biographer, an opinionated critic, and graceful song lyricist.” The Los Angeles Times quoted former New Yorker Editor Robert Gottlieb, who described Lees as “a strong presence in jazz.”

Gene Lees
Gene Lees

All the obituaries dutifully reported that Lees had died “in Ojai, Calif.” None explained how it was that a legendary jazz writer had ended up in this bucolic valley, so far from the big-city clubs where his favorite musicians plied their trade. A hint can be found in Lees’s most famous lyric, even though he wrote it years before he first set eyes on Ojai.

EUGENE Frederick John Lees was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on February 8, 1928. As a young man he dreamed of becoming a painter. Instead he went into journalism, first in Canada and later in Kentucky, where he served as a music critic for the Louisville Times. By 1959 he was in Chicago, editing the jazz magazine Down Beat.

After leaving Down Beat in 1961, Lees volunteered to tag along with the Paul Winter Sextet on a State Department-sponsored tour of South America. Lees was intrigued by what he had heard of bossa nova music, and he wanted to trace it to its source. When the tour reached Rio de Janeiro, he contacted the songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim, and they quickly became friends. On the bus trip from Rio to the tour’s next stop, Lees jotted down some English-language lyrics for Jobim’s “Corcovado.” (The original lyrics, of course, are in Portuguese.) This is how the Lees version begins:

Quiet nights of quiet stars
Quiet chords from my guitar
Floating on the silence that surrounds us

Quiet thoughts and quiet dreams
Quiet walks by quiet streams
And a window looking on the mountains and the sea, how lovely

When the tour ended, Lees headed for New York City. He had written a novel, which he hoped to sell to a publisher, and he also had aspirations as a lyricist.

“That first year in New York was one of the most difficult of my life,” he recalled in his book Friends Along the Way: A Journey Through Jazz. “I couldn’t, as they say, get arrested. I couldn’t sell my prose, I couldn’t sell my songs. At any given moment I was ready to quit, scale back my dreams to the size of the apparent opportunities, leave New York and find some anonymous job somewhere.”

Then things started to click.

“I was the pianist on the first recording of one of his songs,” recalls the composer Roger Kellaway, a longtime Ojai resident. “The song was called ‘Fly Away My Sadness,’ and the vocalist was Mark Murphy.”

Getz/Gilberto, 1964
Getz/Gilberto, 1964

A few months later, Tony Bennett recorded “Quiet Nights (Corcovado)” for his hit 1963 album I Wanna Be Around. Then came Getz/Gilberto, an epic event in jazz history. Released in March 1964, this album by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto transformed the bossa nova craze into an international phenomenon. The hit single was “The Girl From Ipanema,” for which Lees did not supply the lyrics. But he did write the album’s liner notes, and the LP also featured Astrud Gilberto singing Lees’s version of “Corcovado.” (The English version eventually would become better known as “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.”)

Lees had made a successful transition from journalist to songwriter. His lyrics for his friend Bill Evans’s tune “Waltz for Debby” became another standard. But there was a cloud on the horizon, because 1964 was also the year of Meet the Beatles. Rock ‘n’ roll was the coming thing, and sophisticated jazz-pop songs — the kind Lees wrote — would soon be on their way out.

“Oh my God, he hated the Beatles,” recalls his widow, Janet Lees, chuckling at the memory of Gene’s bitter fulminations against rock music.

The next few years constituted a kind of Indian summer for jazz singers, who continued to score occasional Top 40 hits. Lees had the privilege of watching Frank Sinatra record “Quiet Nights” for the classic 1967 album Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim. Lees also supplied the lyrics to “Yesterday I Heard the Rain” for Tony Bennett, and he translated “Venice Blue” for Charles Aznavour.

“Venice Blue” also was recorded by the rocker-turned-crooner Bobby Darin, whom Lees considered a talented singer. This association with Darin “was probably about as close to the pop industry as he ever got,” Kellaway said of Lees, his old friend and frequent collaborator.

Kellaway himself was more adaptable; he went on to work with the likes of George Harrison. But Lees could not accommodate himself to the new order.

“Had Gene been born sooner, he would surely have been as famous and successful as the top songwriters of the ’30s and ’40s,” the Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout wrote after Lees’s death. “But he came along after the cultural tide of jazz had started to ebb … Not surprisingly, he despised rock, which he believed had laid waste to the lost musical world of his youth.”

Bridges: Gene Lees albumAs he turned 40 in 1968, Lees faced diminishing prospects as a songwriter. His personal life was also unsettled after two failed marriages (one of which had produced a son). Then Lees met Janet Suttle. By 1971 she was Janet Lees, and they were living in Toronto, where Gene ran Kanata Records. (Among the albums he put out during this period was his own Bridges: Gene Lees Sings the Gene Lees Songbook.)

Things were looking up on the songwriting front, too. The legendary director Joshua Logan was developing a new Broadway musical called Jonathan Wilde. Composer Lalo Schifrin, already famous for his Mission: Impossible theme, was writing the music. Logan brought Gene in as the lyricist. “Logan told Richard Rodgers, ‘I’ve found the next Hammerstein,’ ” Janet Lees recalls.

The job required Gene to make frequent trips to Southern California, where Schifrin was based. Eventually, Gene and Janet made a permanent move from Toronto to Tarzana, where they bought a house. To their great disappointment, Jonathan Wilde was never produced, due to a legal dispute between Logan and the show’s original writers. But Gene kept busy with other projects, such as collaborating with Roger Kellaway on the songs for an animated film, The Mouse and His Child. There was still a market in Hollywood for the sort of lyrics he wrote, even though rock music and disco now completely ruled the Top 40.

But Lees’s career was about to enter an entirely new phase. And the turning point can be traced to a weekend trip he and Janet made to Ojai.

LEES already knew Ojai fairly well. “He used to come up here and work with Lalo Schifrin, who had a house behind the Presbyterian Church,” Janet said. But on one particular weekend, sometime in the late ’70s, something special happened. The clock-radio alarm in their motel room was tuned to the only station in town: KOVA-FM, owned by jazz expert Fred Hall. On Sunday morning, Gene awoke to sounds he did not readily associate with small-town living.

“I heard first Count Basie, then Jack Jones, and a man who discussed them with great knowledge,” Lees later wrote. “This brought me to full wakefulness, and when I heard the station’s call letters, I telephoned and spoke to him. That’s how I met Fred. He invited me to visit the station, which I did later that morning.”

Ojai in those days was something of a jazz hotbed. The famous trumpet player Maynard Ferguson lived here. The annual Ojai Music Festival always included a jazz component, organized by Fred Hall and Lynford Stewart. Later on in the ’80s, Wheeler Hot Springs began to host performances by the likes of Ray Brown, Mose Allison, Charlie Byrd and the Manhattan Transfer. At the heart of it all was Hall, whose radio show “Swing Thing” reached a national audience via syndication. Gene and Janet immediately hit it off with Fred and his wife, Gita. The Leeses also fell in love with Ojai, a place where quiet nights of quiet stars are almost a nightly occurrence. At some point, Gita asked the obvious question: “Why can’t you live here?”

The answer, essentially, was “No reason at all.” The Leeses left Tarzana behind and rented a house on Signal Road. Later they moved into an apartment complex in the Mira Monte neighborhood, before eventually settling in house high up on Foothill Road. Gene, Fred and Lyn Stewart teamed up to produce the “Jazz At Ojai” concerts in Libbey Bowl. And Gene turned from writing jazz lyrics to writing jazz essays.

The catalyst was the 1981 death of his friend Hugo Friedhofer, the distinguished film composer. To Gene’s immense frustration, he could not persuade the New York Times to run an obituary. The giants of his era were passing, and nobody seemed to be noticing. It was time for Lees to return to his roots as a journalist, to memorialize their achievements.

“That’s when Gene started the Jazzletter,” Janet said.

Lees put out his newsletter from 1981 until he died. It featured eloquent essays on a wide range of topics, not all of them jazz-related, but all of them beautifully written and brimming with passion. It became an institution in the jazz world, cherished by its subscribers.

“The Jazzletter was wonderful,” Kellaway said. “There were long, long dissertations on whatever he chose as a subject.”

He filled the Jazzletter with biographical essays, many of which were collected into books. He also wrote full-length biographies of Oscar Peterson, Woody Herman and Johnny Mercer. (At his death, Lees was putting the finishing touches on a life of Artie Shaw, which may yet be published.) Long or short, most of these profiles featured Lees himself in a supporting role, since he was always part of the story.

“Gene actually knew personally everybody that he wrote about,” Kellaway said. “He knew Basie and Tommy Dorsey. He knew everybody.”

At first, Lees continued to work as a lyricist while putting out the newsletter. In the early ’80s he acquired an unlikely collaborator: Pope John Paul II, who as a young priest had been given to writing poetry. Two Italian composers had set these poems to music, and Lees was hired to translate them into English lyrics. The result was a song cycle that was performed in a special concert in Germany, with vocals by Sarah Vaughan. The concert was recorded, but no major record company was interested, so Gene and Janet put the record out themselves with the title The Planet is Alive … Let it Live!

After that experience, Lees focused more on prose than poetry. His readers — and his friends — were seldom in doubt about where he stood. He liked to drink and he liked to argue, and the combination was not always pleasant for the people around him. Nevertheless, the jazz critic Doug Ramsey enjoyed jousting with Lees.

“He had strong opinions about everything,” Ramsey wrote in his Lees obituary. “We argued. Arguing was half the fun of knowing Lees. Every argument with Gene was a win for me because I had learned from him.”

Lees suffered from ill health during his final years, but he kept on writing — and not just about jazz legends from the past. One younger singer he admired was Diana Krall, who returned the compliment by recording his best-known lyric as the title song of her most recent album, Quiet Nights.

During Gene’s three decades in Ojai, the town lost some of its jazz chops. Fred and Gita Hall sold the radio station and later moved away. Wheeler Hot Springs closed, and the Ojai Festival stopped featuring traditional jazz. But Ojai remained well known in the jazz world as the home of Gene Lees and the Jazzletter. (Gene and Janet also deserve credit for bringing the violin virtuoso Yue Deng to live in Ojai, after they took her under their wing and introduced her to jazz.)

When Gene died on April 22, 2010, Janet was stunned by the outpouring of tributes from jazz writers and musicians across the globe. Eulogies were printed as far away as London, where the Times called Gene “one of the most dazzling lyricists in popular songwriting, and the Boswell to a generation of jazz musicians.”

“I just didn’t think of him as being so well-known all over the world,” Janet said.

In Ojai, not so much. Yet it was here that the man who wrote “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” finally found his own Corcovado, after first finding the person to share it with. Here’s how the song ends:

This is where I want to be
Here with you, so close to me
Until the final flicker of life’s ember

I who was lost and lonely
Believing life was only
A bitter tragic joke, have found with you
The meaning of existence, oh my love

 

This article originally appeared in the winter 2011 issue of the Ojai Quarterly. Republished here with permission. Janet Lees died in 2013. Gene Lees’s Artie Shaw biography has not been published. (Posted by Mark Lewis, December 2014)

Jailhouse Rocked

The Ojai murder case that put Johnny Cash behind bars at Folsom Prison

By Mark Lewis

Ojai is not renowned for famous murders. But there was one local case, involving an accused murderer named Earl Green, that deserves at least a footnote in the history books, because it set off an unlikely chain of events which eventually led to the making of Johnny Cash’s legendary “At Folsom Prison” live album.

Johnny Cash & Earl Green photo
From left, Johnny Cash, Sheila Green, Earl Green.

Cash never did any hard time in his life, but Green did – in Folsom Prison, no less. And Cash never actually shot a man in Reno “just to watch him die” – but Green crushed a man’s skull with a baseball bat near Ojai, just for $9 and a wristwatch. That at least was the DA’s version of events; Green claimed he acted in self-defense. The jury bought the DA’s version and sent Earl to death row. But he ultimately evaded the gas chamber and ended up in Folsom, serving a life sentence. As a result, years later, Green was able to play a key role in bringing Cash there to perform. In fact, if Green had never picked up that baseball bat, Cash’s Folsom concert might never have happened.

The story begins on Labor Day 1954, when Earl Compton Green Jr. and his friend Joseph Oliver LaChance drove from Pasadena to Ojai to apply for work at a local resort.

Green, 27, was an ex-Marine and a convicted felon from Florida, who recently had moved to Pasadena with his second wife and her 3-year-old daughter by an earlier marriage. He found work as a kitchen helper at the Annandale Golf Club under an assumed name. There he met LaChance, 49, an ex-con from Canada who worked at Annandale as a guard.

Green already was itching to move on from Pasadena. He was afraid that his mother-in-law, who resided there, would report him to the Florida authorities for breaking the terms of his parole by leaving the state. (He had served three years for armed robbery. Apparently the mother-in-law did not consider him a suitable match for her daughter.) LaChance had an idea: Why not move to out-of-the-way Ojai, where no one would know who he was?

LaChance apparently had worked at an Ojai resort in the past (probably Matilija Hot Springs), and he offered to use his contacts there to find jobs for both Green and himself. On Labor Day they drove in LaChance’s car to Ojai, stopping several times along the way to have a few beers. When they arrived at the resort, they were told that the man they wanted to see would be away from his office for two hours. So they had a few more beers and drove out to Matilija Lake to kill some time while they waited.

The police theory of what happened next is that Green saw an opportunity to rob LaChance, so he bashed him twice on the back of his head with a bat when the older man stooped down to get a drink of water. Green’s version is that they had driven up there to do some target shooting, but instead LaChance made an aggressive pass at him.

“We got there and he didn’t want to shoot gun, he wanted to play around,” Green told Johnny Cash biographer Michael Streissguth many years later. “And so I hit him with a bat I picked up, and I hit him too hard and I killed him.”

(Streissguth, who filmed a lengthy interview with Green in 2007 for a documentary film about Cash, has graciously shared the interview transcript with the Ojai Quarterly.)

Green took LaChance’s wristwatch and the $9 he found in the man’s pockets, and drove off in LaChance’s 1951 Chevy sedan. He stopped in Pasadena just long enough to pick up his wife and her young daughter, then set off on a cross-country crime spree. He pawned the watch; sold the car somewhere in Ohio; robbed a supermarket in Richmond, Ind.; then committed another robbery in Ocala, Fla. Then he headed west again, moving from town to town, keeping one step ahead of the law. The police finally caught up to him in March 1955 by setting up a roadblock on Route 66.

“They run me down in Amarillo, Texas,” he told Streissguth. “They knew what kind of car I was driving and that’s how they got me.”

In the car they found Green, his wife and stepdaughter and an 18-year-old male accomplice, along with a .22 rifle and a sawed-off shotgun. Green put up no resistance. He had gotten away with $6,000 in cash from that Indiana supermarket robbery, but had less than 75 cents on him when he was arrested.

Three months later, on trial for his life in a Ventura County courtroom, Green admitted killing LaChance, but claimed temporary insanity. Being propositioned by a man, he said, had prompted a violent reaction, essentially in self-defense. The jurors didn’t buy it; they convicted him of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.

All capital murder cases automatically were appealed, but Green had little reason to think that his conviction might be overturned. He spent the next 16 months on death row in San Quentin, waiting for his date with the gas chamber down in the prison basement.

“I thought, ‘This is it, man,'” Green recalled. “I’ve seen three men go down. They shook my hand and then they took them down the day before [their execution].”

But Green would never take that fatal trip to the basement. In October 1956, the California Supreme Court affirmed his murder conviction but overturned his death sentence, on the grounds that the trial judge had erred in his instructions to the jury. Reversing an 82-year-old precedent, the court stunned the state’s legal community by ordering a new trial to determine Green’s punishment.

Improbably, Green had a new lease on life. But Ventura County District Attorney Roy Gustafson still wanted his scalp, and Green had every reason to fear that the next jury, properly instructed, would send him right back to death row. So he developed a new strategy. He acted so bizarrely that he was declared incompetent to stand trial. This is not easy to do – if it were, then every capital-murder defendant would try it. But Earl Green pulled it off. “Green broke down and was declared hopelessly insane,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

He was sent to the Atascadero State Mental Hospital, where doctors eventually determined that he was fit to stand trial. Unwilling to face another jury, he escaped from Atascadero, but was soon recaptured. Hauled up before a judge in yet another Ventura County courtroom, he once again went into his crazy act. And once again it worked, earning him a return ticket to Atascadero. Then he surprised everyone by admitting that he had been faking insanity all along to avoid the gas chamber. “Green told Gustafson he was sorry he had caused so much trouble and was especially sorry about pretending to be God,” the Times reported.

So, back to death row? Not this time. Green had worn down Ventura County justice officials with all his antics, and they had little desire to put him on trial again. After a brief hearing in February 1958, a judge gave him a life sentence, and at the age of 30 he was sent to live out the rest of his days in Folsom Prison.

“Well, you know Folsom was for hardened criminals,” Green told Streissguth. “Those that were there were on the end of the line. No looking for parole or anything; you run out your life in prison. And it was a prison within a prison. It had them big old six-foot [thick] walls. And then you went through them and went down through the inner part, and there was another wall! And that was the inner prison, I was told.”

Green found Folsom more congenial than San Quentin in at least two respects: It had no gas chamber, and it was not dominated by inmate gangs. A man could “do his own time” at Folsom, meaning that if he minded his business and kept his nose clean, he could stay out of trouble with the guards and with his fellow inmates: “If you won’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”

Green steeled himself for the likelihood that he would pass three or four or even five decades behind those walls. His wife had borne him a son conceived before his arrest, but Earl told her to get a divorce, take the child and forget all about him. She took his advice; apparently he never saw her or the boy again. Nor did he maintain contact with his older son from an earlier marriage. He drew a curtain on the past, and settled in to do his time.

Green found solace by returning to his Christian roots. Raised as a churchgoer, he had fallen away from grace during his hell-raising years. But after his arrest, he had struck up a friendship with the Rev. Floyd Gressett, a Ventura pastor who ministered to county jail inmates. Gressett had visited Green on death row in San Quentin, and continued the visits after Earl landed in Folsom as a lifer.

Green also spent a lot of time in Folsom’s Greystone Chapel, which served both Protestants and Catholics. “I went there for my benefit to get spiritual uplifting,” he said.

To help the time pass more quickly, Green kept busy by playing country music with friends.

“I took up the bass guitar while I was in there,” he said. “I had my mother send me one, an electric guitar. And I learned the bass and I had me a little band. … And it was something that I did on my own to [keep from] going insane. I bet if you sat there watching walls all day you would go insane.”

One day he noticed a new inmate playing a guitar by himself in the prison yard. This was Glen Sherley, who was doing time for armed robbery. Glen was a decade younger than Earl, but the two men had similar musical tastes, and they hit it off. “So we got together and played, and he played me a lot of his songs,” Green recalled. Impressed with their quality, Green urged Sherley to try and sell them to a music publisher. Glen shrugged off the suggestion. “He thought nobody would do nothing with them songs,” Earl recalled. “He didn’t think nobody would do anything for him.”

The years passed and Green thrived in prison, to the extent possible. By 1964, he was serving as the in-house DJ, “the Voice of Folsom Prison,” spinning songs that inmates could listen to on headphones in their cells. Green was big Johnny Cash fan, and he knew that Johnny had performed several times for the inmates at San Quentin. (A young Merle Haggard attended at least one of those shows while serving time for burglary.) If Cash could play San Quentin, why not Folsom?

Green knew from Floyd Gressett that Cash was now living in the Ojai Valley, and sometimes attended services at Gressett’s nondenominational Avenue Community Church in Ventura. As Gressett later related the story to Ventura Star-Free Press reporter Gene Beley, it was Earl Green who now kicked off the chain of events that eventually brought Johnny Cash to Folsom Prison.

“One time when I visited Green,” Gressett said, “he asked me what the possibility was of Johnny visiting the inmates.”

Gressett relayed Green’s invitation to Cash, who eagerly accepted. Green helped sell the idea to the Folsom authorities. It took awhile to set up, but the unpublicized concert finally took place in November 1966, with Green himself serving as soundman. “He come on and did a terrific show and of course he was accepted [by the inmates],” Green said. “They just clapped and clapped and clapped for him.”

The show’s success seems to have inspired Cash to revive a pet project. For years he had wanted to record a live album at one of his prison shows, but his Columbia Records producers always vetoed the idea. Then, early in 1967, Cash was assigned to a new producer, Bob Johnston. When Cash pitched the prison idea to Johnston, he embraced it and made it happen. And so, on Jan. 13, 1968, Cash returned to Folsom with a truckload full of Columbia Records sound equipment to record “At Folsom Prison,” the live album that would transform his career.

Earl Green did not attend that second concert; he had been transferred to a minimum-security prison in Vacaville three months earlier. Nevertheless, he managed to play a key role in the proceedings. While still at Folsom, he had urged Glen Sherley to write a song for Cash. Sherley came up with “Greystone Chapel,” which echoed Green’s own discovery of salvation behind bars:

It takes a ring of keys to move here at Folsom
But the door to the House of God is never locked
Inside the walls of prison my body may be
But my Lord has set my soul free

Green recorded Sherley singing the song in the chapel, and slipped the tape to Gressett, who eventually played it for Cash. Johnny loved the song, and he performed it during his second Folsom concert, after pointing out Sherley in the audience as the man who wrote it. This performance was included on Cash’s live album, thus launching Sherley as a professional songwriter while he was still behind bars.

In 1971, Cash helped bring about Sherley’s parole and brought him to Nashville as a songwriter for Cash’s publishing firm, the House of Cash. Johnny also made Glen a featured performer in his touring stage review, “The Johnny Cash Show.” As a free man, Sherley went on to write “Portrait of My Woman” for Eddy Arnold, and he also recorded some albums of his own. Charismatic, talented and ruggedly handsome, Sherley seemed set for stardom in his own right.

Meanwhile, Earl Green had beaten the odds again: Despite his life sentence, he had become eligible for parole. Gressett asked him if he wanted to seek Cash’s help, but Green rejected the suggestion. He did not want anyone to pull any strings for him. He earned his freedom the hard way, by demonstrating over the years that he was no longer the man who had swung that baseball bat at Joseph LaChance’s head back in Matilija Canyon.

Paroled sometime in the early ’70s – the exact date is uncertain – Green followed his friends Sherley and Harlan Sanders (another parolee-turned-songwriter) to Nashville, where Green worked briefly as a DJ for a local radio station. He also worked (very briefly) at the House of Cash, in a make-work job that Johnny offered him “out of the kindness of his heart, like he felt I needed the money, which I did.”

Green never tried to reconnect with his long-lost sons, but he did marry again, and he helped his new wife, Sheila, raise her sons from a previous marriage. Green also tried to help his friend Glen Sherley, whose Cinderella story did not have a happy ending.

Ironically, Sherley’s main problem apparently was his pep-pill habit, the same addiction that had almost cut short Cash’s career, not to mention his life. Sherley grew sullen and withdrawn, and began to make threatening remarks that intimidated Cash’s other employees. “Back then he was taking them pills and John found out about it and that’s when John kicked him out,” Green said.

Spiraling downward, Sherley gave up on his once-promising Nashville career and returned to California. He had gone through all his money, he had few prospects, his wife had left him. One day in May 1978, he picked up a gun and blew his brains out. He was 42 years old.

“It was just sad, because Glen got on those pills so bad that they just controlled him,” Sheila Green told the Ojai Quarterly in a recent interview.

No such fate awaited Earl Green. He was content to work in a machine shop, and later as a sort of a handyman for the country stars Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White. “I was nanny to their children, and Earl, he did a little bit of everything,” Sheila said.

Sheila said she tried unsuccessfully to get Earl to write his memoirs “because so many things happened in his life. It would have made a real good book.”

Earl preferred not to dwell on the past. But he always remained very proud of the role he had played in helping to bring Johnny Cash to Folsom Prison.

“We stayed friends with Johnny,” Sheila said. “We went to dinners at their house.”

Earl also remained a churchgoer, and he remained married to Sheila for 37 years, until his death in Nashville in 2011 at the age of 84. Spared from the gas chamber, and from permanent confinement in Folsom, he had turned his life around and made it count for something. And that, more than the famous Johnny Cash concert, was his most impressive accomplishment.

“Of course I’m not the person who went into prison,” he told Streissguth. “I’m the person who come out of prison. And I changed. And I did that myself.”

 

(This story originally appeared in the spring 2013 issue of the Ojai Quarterly.)