‘All We Need Is Another Chance’ Doc Looks At The Power of Music Behind Bars
Cutting a hit record in the belly of the beast
Recording and releasing music while doing time is nothing new to the history of modern music. And it goes well beyond artists—from Leadbelly to Lauryn Hill—just serving time. Or like Johnny Cash, B.B. King and the Sex Pistols, recording while performing live behind bars.
Entire albums have been cut right before serving jail time (Beanie Sigel, 2Pac). Tracks have been recorded over the phone from lockup (Mac Dre, Gucci Mane), and full albums have dropped while doing bids (Slick Rick, Pimp C, Lil Wayne, Lil Boosie). And in the case of the doo-wop group, The Prisonaires, inmates have even been granted furlough for the day to go and record; in their case, at the famed Sun Studios.
But, in one of the best stories never told, it is The Escorts, a soul singing group that rose to prominence in New Jersey during the 1970s, that hold the distinct title of being the first to cut, not one, but two full length albums while serving felony sentences in a maximum security facility.
Founded by Reginald Prophet Haynes, The Escorts were discovered by Motown producer George Kerr at a talent show at the notorious Rahway State Prison. After a two years long letter writing campaign, Kerr would return to the prison, this time with a mobile recording unit – and the support of authorities. The result: All We Need Is Another Chance, The Escorts’ 1973 debut.
A new documentary, set to premiere at the Montclair Film Festival this coming weekend, shares the-seeds-planted-on-hard-ground story of the soul singing group. All We Need is Another Chance finds the present day Escorts prepping for a return to the stage to receive a life-time achievement honor. Reggie is the only surviving member from the original group. Since 1986, he has performed with Billy Martin and La’Grant Harris as The Legendary Escorts. But, even age and ailing health, can’t keep the men from their greater purpose.
The doc, directed by Corbett Jones finds universality in its one-of-a-kind specificity. No matter your walk in life, who isn’t in need of something to believe in?
Ahead of the film’s premiere, MASS APPEAL caught up with Corbett Jones to learn more.
It’s hard to imagine prison authorities ever even allowing producer George Kerr behind the walls of Rahway to record The Escorts.
Corbett Jones: Yeah, it’s absolutely insane. George’s wife looked at him and was like, “You’re crazy right? You want to record these guys? These guys are like murderers. And kidnappers.” But, he just refused to see that side of them. He just accepted their talents for what they were.
How did you first learn about the group?
The story came to me through our co-producer Chris Black. He’s an avid record collector. He was just digging through records at a record store one day and found an album cover, which is nine guys standing on opposite sides of some prison bars. And they were reaching through to the record producer and arranger. And at the bottom of the cover it says, “Recorded Live At The Rahway State Prison.” So that peaked his interest and he did a little googling on his end. And then found out that Reggie, the original founding member of the group, was still alive and still had a version of the group kind of doing retrospective shows. He brought the story to me and knew that I’d be interested. And then we reached out to [The remaining Escorts] and they were interested. And so, it went from there.
Yeah, that’s definitely true. I think a lot of people hear their songs and go, “Oh, hey. I actually really like this song.” The Escorts covered a lot of hits at the time. George Kerr produced the O’Jays too, and so he had The Escorts do a lot of their hits as well. A lot of people will actually say that they like The Escorts version of a song better. And once you’ve been to see some of their shows, you know that “Ooh Baby Baby” always got the crowd going. Everyone knows that song. “Look Over Your Shoulder” too. But, they also did have original tracks as well.
This misleading narrative that The Escorts somehow sang their way out of prison has always clouded their history.
I think that was a kind of a PR move. I’m sure there are articles and stuff from the time that built that hype up around it. I also think that people at the time just really liked that idea that you could be so good that you could, you know, sing your way out of prison. And that they wanted to believe that could have a talent so worthy that it could get you out. Like why let this talent go to waste, sitting inside a prison cell?? But, for Reggie, that story always kind of irked him. He says in the film, “The parole board didn’t give a damn about me singing in prison.” He says, “I served. I served my time.” That was always something that he really wanted to make sure that the movie conveyed. He did his time. And while, yeah, he’s talented, he doesn’t want to be known as being so talented that he got out of prison. Like he somehow got off easy. He didn’t.
While the film does touch upon systemic racism, you tend to keep it more on the personal tip, focusing on the saving grace of music. What informed that decision?
When we met Reggie, we really wanted to show this side of him that is all about just spreading positivity to everyone. This whole idea of, “You can pick yourself up by your bootstraps.” And every time that I sort of pressed him about the fact that there might have been racism at play in his second trial and I’d ask about prison as a really dark time, he didn’t really want to talk about it. That’s not what he remembered. Not what he focuses on. He remembered and he continues to be the kind of person that sees the positive in things. That’s what we really wanted to leave people. He finishes the film by saying, “I’m just Reggie.” And I think that’s a really perfect wrap-up statement because he just kind of says, “Hey, look, I haven’t done anything that the rest of us couldn’t do.” For him, it’s just about believing in yourself to be able to do it. I really wanted to make a film about that because that’s just the kind of character that he exudes.
How has learning about Reggie’s experiences inside changed your opinion on the arts and education in prison?
The biggest thing has been that my mentality has shifted much more towards rehabilitation. That definitely needs to be focused on more. Access to education can spur interests in people. That spark of interest can give someone purpose. Through this, my eyes have definitely been opened to the total lack of resources available in the prison system. It’s just incredible.
People often think of prison as an endpoint, and forget that life and talent still exist behind bars. Are you asking viewers to rethink how they view people who are incarcerated?
I think that we’ve lost sight of what it means to go to prison. Society as a whole sends people to prison, like you were saying, as an ending point. If the prison system could be more of an educational system, I think that would be really valuable – for all of us. And that starts with us being able to recognize that those who are incarcerated are people too. And that they deserve a second chance. There are a great many people currently behind bars that deserve another opportunity.