Last month, Arthur Lee, the influential singer for the ’60s group Love, was released from a California prison after serving almost six years of an eleven-year sentence. He had been convicted and sent away for illegal possession of a firearm and discharging the gun into the air during a dispute with a neighbor. It was a pretty steep sentence for not actually harming anyone, and don’t think the groovy, Spock-rock set didn’t take notice. Lee became kind of a hipsters Mumia, someone wrongly accused of shooting a gun (his lawyer says there is strong evidence that someone else actually fired the weapon). In reality, the only thing Lee probably shouldn’t be forgiven for is introducing the world to the Doors, whom he helped get signed to Elektra.
When musicians get sent up the river, it tends to humanize a population that still remains in the throwaway pile for most of America: prisoners. Don’t think that James Brown was the first black man to get a stiff sentence for trying to outrun a cop. He just reminded us that stuff like that goes on, and for a moment we actually remembered there were other people like Brown in jail.
Another imprisoned California musician is eligible for parole in the coming weeks. Rick Stevens was the first singer for Oakland’s Tower of Power, that funky, tight, syncopated horn-fest that vividly put the East Bay on the soul map and played up its Oakland connection — even championed it — at a time when the San Francisco scene was getting all of the attention during the ’60s. Stevens, who will turn 62 in late February, has been in prison for the last 26 years after receiving two seven-years-to-life sentences for a much more heinous crime: double murder.
“He shot up three people,” recalls Emilio “Mimi” Castillo, sax player and founding member of the group. “He tied up this lady and left her in a trunk — pretty gruesome stuff.” Although Stevens had been out of the group for a few years at the time of the incident, the media played up the Tower of Power connection anyway, much to the dismay of the band, which already had moved on to singer Lenny Williams. “Rick was a really great guy,” says Castillo. “But he got strung out on hard narcotics — when he was in that state of mind, he was not a nice guy.”
The singer’s belligerence got him booted from the band, despite many members’ still-strong feelings that he was the best vocalist ever for Tower of Power. “Let me tell you something about Rick Stevens,” says Castillo with dramatic pause. “That guy was one of the greatest singers that ever lived. Unbelievable. And if it hadn’t been for the drugs, he’d have been a huge star.” On top of his musical skills, Stevens had a charisma and compelling stage presence. That’s his lead vocal on “You’re Still a Young Man,” which arguably was the band’s biggest hit, as well as being the song that Prince claims he lost his virginity to.
Stevens has been up for parole before, but Castillo says he always managed to show up to the hearing wasted or in a fighting mood. “People speculated that he would do that so he wouldn’t get out, that he was institutionalized,” Castillo says. But these days, according to his friends, Stevens has been on good behavior for several years, has completed all the vocational training necessary for release, is the Protestant chaplain’s clerk, and sings in the choir at the Mule Creek State Prison in Ione.
What happened to Rick Stevens in prison? He found the Lord. And the person who helped him to see the light was none other than his original accomplice. “I know the guy who did the crime with him,” Castillo says. “This is the most changed man you’ve ever seen in your life. He’s a pastor now, married. It’s hard to believe, because he was the most underhanded person that you’d ever want to meet back in the day! Now he’s just a wonderful, wonderful guy. He told me that Rick Stevens got the God thing big-time.”
The pastor Castillo speaks of — the man who served twenty years in prison for participating in the same crime as Stevens — still finds it difficult to recount his former criminal associations with the singer. The pastor, who agreed to discuss his relationship with Stevens on the condition that his name not appear in print, still hasn’t fully explained his crime to members of his family or church community and his voice drops when asked about the event. But Stevens, someone he once looked up to as a street-smart 26-year-old, is now someone he serves as a mentor to. “Rick is a great guy who got caught up in a drug-related situation and panicked,” he says. “I know that Rick is deeply remorseful for what happened long years ago.”
Even if Stevens is a changed man, many people will no doubt balk at the idea that a double-lifer should be released from prison. If the question comes down to whether or not he is a threat to society, most evidence suggests he is not. That leaves the question of punishment, and for some — perhaps the majority of Californians, if you believe the polls — prisoners such as Stevens never should be released.
Last year, I spent time as a teaching assistant at San Quentin — former home of another wayward musician, Merle Haggard — going over inmate essays and working with the students on their writing. It wasn’t the wild madhouse most people envision. Everyone I worked with was polite — if anything they were touched that any outside folks would care enough about them to volunteer their time. Some inmates, mostly the young ones, were still a bit cocky; it hadn’t yet sunk in for them that this was the last stop. Then there were the men like Rick Stevens, those still in prison into their fifties and sixties, some of whom had been there since their early twenties. These men were a teacher’s dream: enthusiastic, wise, patient.
One such man, Shaheed, had taught himself a lot in prison and clearly was respected by other inmates for his knowledge as well as his jail experience. Although we were instructed not to ask the men what they had done or when they were getting out, it was apparent to me that Shaheed had little hope of release. For this reason he had a profound sense of loss, something that weighed down all the victories he had in class. Shaheed was my superior emotionally and philosophically. Men such as him — men who had no business being there anymore — were the saddest inmates to wave good-bye to on our way out of the prison. They were well past rehabilitation.
Is Rick Stevens such a man? Is he rehabilitated? “Rehabilitation is not a good word because it means ‘return back to the former state,’ ” the singer’s friend and pastor says. “The word regeneration is a much better word; transformation is a much better word. And Rick has been transformed. He’s a student of the Bible. He’s respected by all his staff and his peers.”
Maybe my soft spot for Stevens comes from the double standard we have created for musicians who get thrown in the clink. But it’s hard to beat a good redemption story, complete with a felon approaching old age, the Lord, and a brilliant, lost career. Should Stevens get paroled, he’s promised a job in Sacramento alongside the pastor. Castillo also looks forward to his possible release. “I would love to record him,” he says. “He’s fabulous.”