Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

15 Musicians Who’ve Done Time

By Nancy Farrell

There’s probably something to the fact that most musicians who’ve gone to prison come from the country and hip-hop fields, but it’s going to take some graduate-level thesis work to extrapolate the real meaning. The easiest observation to make is that those genres tend to prize performers whose personas are rooted in anti-establishment lyrics and actions, and that the art and artist fed each other to the point where going to prison started to seem like one of those things you did to start your career or reinvigorate it. Or who knows, maybe people just crack under pressure regardless of what kind of music they make. Whatever the reason — feel free to insert your own — there are plenty of musicians who’ve done time over the years, whether it’s for minor infractions, drug charges, or serious crimes. It just goes to show that no matter how many fans you get, you’ve still got to deal with the boys in blue.

  1. Steve Earle: Steve Earle’s musical career is divided into two halves: his records before prison, and those that came after. He got his start in Nashville writing songs for country artists and gradually doing more performing on his own, and his profile rose with his 1986 debut, Guitar Town, and later records like Copperhead Road. But in the early 1990s, the wheels pretty much came off. He gave in completely to his heroin addiction, and he didn’t record for years. In 1994, he was arrested and jailed for posession, which was essentially his low point, locked up after years out of the public eye. But in a weird way, the stint behind bars focused his style. When he got out a year or so later, he released Train a Comin’, an acoustic album that mixed originals with covers, and that was shortly followed by I Feel Alright. Both received critical acclaim and reignited his career. He’s since kicked his bad habits.
  2. Chuck Berry: Chuck Berry was not a young man to be trifled with: from 1944-47, while he was still a teen, Berry did hard time for armed robbery. That would’ve been his last brush with prison if not for a later application of the Mann Act, which is officially called the White-Slave Traffic Act. The Mann Act prohibited white slavery and the transporting of white women across state lines for what the language deemed "immoral purposes"; the real purpose was to apprehend men accused of sleeping with underage women. In December 1959, a young woman alleged that Berry had sex with her after taking her across state lines to work as a hat-check girl. He was sentenced to five years in prison in the spring of 1960, though a series of appeals lowered that to three years, of which he served 18 months.
  3. Sid Vicious: John Ritchie was dead at 21 from a heroin overdose. The man lived a short, troubled, erratic life, and he dealt with the law up to the end. Lover Nancy Spurgen was fatally stabbed in October 1978, and Sid Vicious was charged with the murder. Details surrounding her death were fuzzy, but the public verdict came in against Sid almost instantly. Sid made bail in February and wound up overdosing the night of his release at a family gathering. He died before he could be tried for Nancy’s murder.
  4. Merle Haggard: Merle Haggard spent time in San Quentin State Prison in the late 1950s for robbery. He’d been in trouble with the law since a teen, when shoplifting and larceny sent him to juvenile hall time and again. He started to get his musical career going with the help of friend and performer Lefty Frizzell, but the threat of being broke again pushed him to rob once more. He was in San Quentin for three years, during which time something pretty cool happened: he saw Johnny Cash perform. The first of Cash’s many prison concerts was in January 1958 at San Quentin. Hag got his life together, earned a GED, and started recording when got out, and not long after that he was dominating country music.
  5. Tupac Shakur: Tupac Shakur didn’t live to see 26, and he spent many of his few years dealing with the law. In February of 1995, he was sentenced to prison (for a term of 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years) for the charge of sexually assaulting a woman in a New York hotel room in 1993. Tupac’s side was that he’d hooked up with the woman a few days before; she alleged that he and several other men had gang-banged her, though Tupac countered that he’d fallen asleep after having sex with her and didn’t know what happened. He was found guilty, but in a sad twist, he was shot several times in November 1994, right before the verdict in his trial was to be announced. As a result, he was in a wheelchair for his wounds when he made it to court days later to hear his guilty verdict read. He entered prison in February 1995 and was released 11 months later, having released the smash Me Against the World while behind bars.
  6. Jim Gordon: Jim Gordon had an epic career going as a session drummer, appearing on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, playing with dozens of artists, and eventually joining the briefly assembled Derek and the Dominos for their only effort, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. He co-wrote the infamous piano coda to "Layla" with Eric Clapton, a tune that’s been used just about everywhere. By the end of the 1970s, though, Gordon was suffering from what would later be diagnosed as acute paranoid schizophrenia, and he complained of symptoms including hearing voices. In June 1983, he killed his mother by stabbing her with a butcher knife, and though his condition was considered during the trial, he was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder and given a sentence of 16 years to life. He’s still in prison.
  7. Phil Spector: Phil Spector’s known for his producing work, but he got his start on the other side of the microphone. Before he was even 20, he’d formed a group called the Teddy Bears that had a hit with "To Know Him Is to Love Him," which hit No. 1 on the charts and was covered by others over the years. After that, he stuck to writing and producing, and he had his hand on so many hits that to even attempt to list them here would be ridiculous. (Here’s a list to get you started.) His musical career came to an end around 2003, though, when actress Lana Clarkson was shot and killed at Spector’s home. Spector was charged with the murder, and though the first trial ended with a hung jury, the second one resulted in a conviction. In May 2009, he was sentenced to 19 years to life in prison, and he’s currently serving his time at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison.
  8. Rick James: Despite (or because of) his pop success, Rick James had a rough life. In the early 1990s, with his music career cooling down, James gave in to his crack addiction (on which he spent as estimated $7,000 a week for five years) and participated in some bizarre and sordid acts. In 1991, James and Tanya Hijazi (his future wife) allegedly kidnapped and beat Mary Sauger, a music industry executive, in Los Angeles. Out on bail, James and Tanya then kidnapped a young woman and held her hostage for days while sexually assaulting her and burning her with a crack pipe. James earned a five-year sentence — the judge, clearly no fan of funk, called the sentence "a gift" — and wound up serving two years in Folsom Prison. His attempts at a comeback were derailed by health issues, and he died in August 2004 from a variety of heart and other issues that were no doubt compounded by the number of drugs in his system at the time.
  9. Johnny Paycheck: Johnny Paycheck was born Donald Lytle, but he adopted the name of a boxer when he started shaping his recording career in the late 1960s. He’d been singing a while by then, but it was as Johnny Paycheck that he tasted real success, notably for "She’s All I Got" and his cover of David Allan Coe’s "Take This Job and Shove It." His outlaw image became real in 1985, when he got sucked into a bar fight in Ohio and shot at a man with a .22 pistol, sending the bullet cutting along the guy’s scalp. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, though when he finally began doing time in 1989, he served just under two years before being pardoned by Ohio Governor Richard Celeste.
  10. Ike Turner: Ike Turner’s musical career and personal life have been nothing if not controversial — his second marriage, to Tina Turner, was marked by abuse and heavy drug use, according to Tina’s autobiography — and that includes some serious prison time. Apparently a major fan of cocaine, Ike was busted for possession in the 1980s and sentenced to four years, though he only served two. The sentence was also tied to drunken driving and a parole violation. Unfortunately, the drugs were never far away: he died in 2007 at age 76 from a cocaine overdose.
  11. James Brown: The Godfather of Soul was no stranger to prison cells. He saw his first one when he was just a teenager, doing three years for theft. In 1988, he was involved in a car chase with police that crossed from Georgia into South Carolina, a crazy incident that saw him hit with weapons and drug charges that totaled up to earn him a six-year prison sentence, of which he served three. After his death, the release of his FBI file showed that Brown claimed he and his vehicle were actually assaulted by law enforcement, and that the chase hadn’t been as one-sided as it appeared at the time. Still, Brown did plenty of other stuff that had him cross paths with police even if he didn’t do time for it, notably decades of domestic violence.
  12. Bobby Brown: Bobby Brown, that big basket of crazy, has had an up-and-down career as a group performer, solo artist, and husband to the equally unhinged Whitney Houston. He’s done a few brief stints in prison, and though none have been the longer sentences that other musicians have seen, they’re still an embarrassment. He was jailed in Georgia in 2004 after a series of misadventures that started with DUI and possession charges and led to parole violations. In 2007, he was briefly jailed in Massachusetts when he didn’t show up for a court date or pay child support to a former girlfriend.
  13. Lil Kim: Lil Kim went to prison not for committing a crime but for lying about her knowledge of it. In 2001, outside the office of New York’s Hot 97, Kim’s entourage got into a brawl with rapper Capone and his companions. Capone had recently put out an album with a track that knocked Lil Kim, and the two groups decided this was worth going to the mattresses over. Soon enough, the shooting started, and one man wound up shot in the back. Kim then lied to police about her knowledge of the cause of the fight and her relationship with those present, and for that she was convicted of perjury and conspiracy. In 2005, she was sentenced to prison for a year and a day, and she served her time in Philadelphia, earning release after 10 months.
  14. Peter Yarrow: Peter Yarrow’s by all accounts a pretty innocent guy: as part of Peter, Paul, and Mary, he sang earnest protest music, cut the children’s hit "Puff, the Magic Dragon" (which he emphatically states is not about drug use), and basically made a living being a hippie. But in 1970, he spent three months in jail for doing something monumentally stupid. Yarrow, who was past 30 by then, was convicted of engaging in sexual behavior with a 14-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty to taking "immoral and indecent liberties" with her and served his time, though he was officially pardoned in 1981 by President Carter. Yarrow apologized for the incident and moved on with his career.
  15. Lil Wayne: Lil Wayne (pictured above) is as known for his collaborations and mix tapes as he is for solo records, but he’s also had more than his share of criminal problems. In July 2007, after his first headlining performance, he was arrested outside New York’s Beacon Theatre for gun possession. (This after cops took him into custody for openly smoking weed with another guy, which for an up and coming musician seems really stupid. Even Willie Nelson knows to spark up in privacy.) He pleaded guilty to the charge of criminal possession, but his sentencing was repeatedly delayed for dental surgery. Eventually, in March 2010, Lil Wayne was sentenced to a year in prison to be served at Rikers Island in New York. He was released that November on good behavior. His time in prison actually helped him out of another jam: On tour in Arizona in 2008, he was busted for possession of narcotics, and though he pleaded not guilty in 2008, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest in 2010, when he was at Rikers. He was sentenced to three years of probation.