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Newly-Released Photos Document Historic Johnny Cash Prison Performances

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- Fifty years ago, the late Johnny Cash stepped onto a stage in a cafeteria at Folsom State Prison and sung his heart out to hundreds of inmates. By his side: a legendary Bay Area photographer.

KPIX has an exclusive look at newly-released photographs from the historic music event. Some have never been seen by the public and are on display in an exhibit at the San Francisco Art Exchange.

The display includes dozens of photographs of the phenomenal musician as he performed at Folsom Prison in 1968 and later at San Quentin State Prison in 1969.

"There's a number of photographs that have never been seen before by anybody," said gallery co-founder and creative director Theron Kabrich. "Aficionados of the performance don't even know these photographs even exist."

Every moment of the legendary concerts was photographed by the late Jim Marshall, who was trusted and hand-picked by Cash.

"Jim was very good friends with Johnny Cash. They had already developed a friendship and the two of them bonded because they were two flawed human beings who really lived their lives the way they wanted to with no excuses," explained Amelia Davis. Davis is the sole beneficiary of the Jim Marshall Estate. Marshall died in 2010.

After Marshall's death, Davis sorted through his images and proof sheets and was astounded.

She said he would take a roll of film and then pick the one he wanted to print. But, as she discovered, there were countless images that were beautiful and she has decided to publish them for all to enjoy. The latest book is "Johnny Cash at Folsom and San Quentin: Photographs by Jim Marshall" and it will be published on July 24 by Reel Art Press and BMG Books.

Both Cash and Marshall had brushes with the law. The musician suffered from a severe drug addiction and self-destructive behavior. The photographer was on probation for shooting a man at the time of the Folsom Prison concerts.

Davis said Cash was a strong advocate for prison reform and prisoner rights. The musician identified with the underdog and felt the power of redemption.

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison Chapel
Johnny Cash at the chapel at Folsom Prison. (Photo: Jim Marshall)

One significant photo that Marshall captured of Cash: a rare color print of the musician leaning up against the door leading into Greystone Chapel, the prison chapel. An inmate named Glen Sherley wrote a song about it and sent it to Cash.

Little did the inmate know that Cash would perform the song at Folsom as Sherley sat in the front row.

After the song, Marshall captured a fleeting shot of Cash on his feet shaking hands with a smiling Sherley.

Kabrich pointed to another photograph that he loved: Johnny Cash standing outside of Folsom on a crosswalk.

"You've got these white markers all the way on the road and typically we equate that with a crosswalk, kind of like Abbey Road with the Beatles walking across Abbey Road for the album," said Kabrich. But this crosswalk was no Abbey Road.

"If you're walking on this you're actually walking right into Folsom Prison," he said.

The show runs through August 8.

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