Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Inmates recorded song in U. P.

The Marquette Prison Band recorded a 45 rpm single,
"The Lifer," behind bars in 1962. The inmate musicians
included, first row from left, Al Gliva and Roger Chase;
and second row, Jess White, Carl Gilkerson, Howard Moore,
Clyde Stanley and inmate #62054.


A Texas record label saw enough potential in a song written by an inmate at Marquette Branch Prison that they sent a recording engineer to the Upper Peninsula to tape the song in the early 1960s.

Alexander "Al" Gliva, also known as prisoner # 62055, composed "The Lifer" and sought to generate interest in the tune by sending a demo tape to Dewey Groom, owner and president of Longhorn Records in Dallas. Gliva was serving a life sentence for second degree murder.

Groom listened to the recording, noted numerous biblical references, but failed to see any commercial value.

Yet, songwriter Clay Allen, who also signed to Longhorn, urged the record executive to pursue the project. Consequently, with Allen's advice, Gliva rewrote the song to Groom's liking.

After several attempts by Gliva to record a quality tape of "The Lifer" in prison, Groom decided to send technician George McCoy to Marquette. Certainly, Warden Raymond J. Buckhoe, a native of Bessemer in the western U. P., wasn't about to send an inmate to a Dallas recording studio.

Also known as the State House of Corrections, Marquette Branch Prison opened in 1889. The facility has housed many notorious criminals over the years and was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its Romanesque architecture.

Having Warden Buckhoe's permission and cooperation, Longhorn Records flew McCoy into Marquette to record Gliva's song on Sept. 10, 1962. A steel guitar player, McCoy set-up Longhorn's equipment and taped a satisfactory take of "The Lifer" the following day.

While Gliva recites his lyrics, Roger Chase sings the chorus, and Clyde Stanley plays a guitar he reportedly made in prison. Other convicts in the "Marquette Prison Band" were Carl Gilkerson, Howard Moore, Jess White and #62054, an unnamed inmate with a number just one digit removed from Gliva's.

The song opens and closes with the clanging of heavy iron cell doors.

In the song's lyrics, Gliva makes reference to Caryl Whittier Chessman, a California robber and rapist who was executed on May 2, 1960. During his lengthy stay on Death Row, Chessman came to the center of the debate over capital punishment.

"I'm a lifer in prison and here I'll remain," are the song's final words.

Gliva may have had more than one motivation to record "The Lifer." He was eligible to make profits from his song and certainly the parole board was bound to look favorably on the life changes Gliva had made since first being incarcerated.

He also composed a second tune, "How Many." That song and "The Lifer" were both published by Saran Music Co., of Cedar Creek, Texas. Saran was associated with Groom's Longhorn Records.

Label owner Groom issued his own recording of "Heartaches For Sale" backed with "Sometimes If I'm Lonely," as Longhorn 525, before assigning Gliva's single the catalog number 526.

"It is our sincere hope that by our efforts, this record of 'The Lifer' might keep some boy from turning to crime," said Longhorn's liner notes, contained on the picture sleeve which accompanied the 45 rpm single. The sleeve carried a photo of the inmate musicians on one side and "The Lifer" in red block letters on the reverse.

In addition to Clay Allen and George McCoy, Longhorn Records also issued material by Janet McBride, who enjoyed fame as a country & western singer during the period from 1960 to 1965.

Besides his record label and music publishing, Groom also owned Longhorn Ballroom, a legendary nightspot in Dallas, which he bought from Jack Ruby.

It isn't known how many copies of "The Lifer" were sold by Longhorn Records, but the single is hard to find.

Michael Nowlin of Marquette, who recently auctioned a copy of the single on eBay, said the record was sold at the prison gift shop and that many copies were destroyed when the store was closed.

Gliva wasn't the only Marquette inmate to have a measure of success in the music business.

During the tenure of Warden James P. Corgan, prisoner Wallace Wysocki composed the words and music to "There Must Be a Bright Tomorrow (For Each Yesterday of Tears)."

Known at the Marquette lock-up as inmate # 3223, Wysocki was serving 10-15 years for armed robbery when musical inspiration struck.

Wysocki's song was published as sheet music by Olman Music Corp.of New York City in 1931. The cover art, by Frederick S. Manning, is a stark depiction of the closed door to a prison cell.

I showed the sheet music to Mike Bastian of Escanaba, who told me the song was arranged for piano, ukulele or guitar. To give me an idea what the song sounded like, he sang some of the lyrics: "'Mid prison walls so dreary I dream, but always in vain. At times I grow so weary my heart cries out in pain."

"It's a fantastic song," Bastian said.

One version of "There Must Be a Bright Tomorrow" was recorded by the duo Mac & Bob, also known as Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner. Other acts also recorded Wysocki's lamentful tune, with arrangements copyrighted by Bob Haring, Paul Hill and Gerald K. Joseph.

Today, Marquette Branch Prison remains a fortress on the south shore of Lake Superior, holding more than 1,000 prisoners.

Inmates Alexander Gliva and Wallace Wysocki served their time securely behind bars, but their musical ambitions managed to escape the confines of prison.


Anonymous said...

I loved finding this blog! Al Gliva is my great uncle and it is such a joy to find out a little more about him!

Unknown said...

I have a single I just found in my wife's grandmothers record clollection. It is # 526 of 6047 made. Give me a call if you are interested. Rod 218-851-2687

Alex said...

Clyde Stanley was employed by my grandfather for a short time in St. Louis in the early '60s. He gave my grandfather a guitar and tenor banjo he built in prison. That guitar was stolen from my house a year and a half ago. Please see my blog for details, as well as more information about Clyde Stanley:

Matthew Caulfield, Seabreeze Park Archivist said...

Wallace Wysocki's "There Must Be A Bright Tomorrow" found its way onto a 1931 Wurlitzer style 125 band organ roll, unfortunately now lost. The roll was #3190, and can be seen here: