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While working as a janitor at Philadelphia City Hall, Ron Aikens began spending his free time singing karaoke outdoors for tips, using the alias “Ronn Jaimz.” Five years ago, a record store owner named Max Ochester approached him between songs and revealed a deep knowledge of his past: He knew that 50 years ago, Aikens sang in an all-prisoner soul and funk band called The Power of Attorney.
The band’s career would be unthinkable today: They’d left the prison under armed guard to play hundreds of concerts and record in major studios. They’d had help from James Brown and Alice Cooper, as well as enterprising state officials — even after the bass player escaped during a gig opening for Stevie Wonder. (He was caught a few months later.)
Aikens told Ochester that after prison he’d struggled to build a music career. Ochester decided to re-release some of the band’s music, but also proposed that Aikens, who is 74, front a new group: Ron & The Hip Tones. They’re slowly releasing songs, which lovingly replicate the Philadelphia soul sound from Aikens’ youth, while struggling to fund a debut album.
“This is a comeback story,” Ochester told me. “This feels like his last-ditch effort to use his talent.”
The Power of Attorney wasn’t alone. In the 1970s, at the dawn of mass incarceration, the Escorts worked with a Motown producer in a New Jersey prison, and Texas bands sold their own vinyl at prison rodeos. In these stories, you can see how Americans used to be more willing to consider the talents of people behind bars, seeing them for more than their crimes.
“When guys come out these days, they have nothing to feel good about,” Aikens told me in an interview this week. He had left prison ready to face the world: “It was about rehabilitation, and there were opportunities to show people that even though we were in prison, we had some worth, and somebody believed in us.”
Although prisons today are less hospitable to the arts, many people behind bars still persevere to produce visual art, writing, podcasts and even movies. Later this month, Die Jim Crow Records will release an album by Lifers Groove, whose members “represent 150 years of time spent in the American prison system.” Vocalist Maxwell Melvins formed the Grammy-nominated hip-hop act Lifers Group from behind bars, 30 years ago.
As a young man, Aikens sang with United Image, a Philadelphia group signed to Stax Records, before an arrest at 25 on statutory rape charges. (Aikens declined to talk about these events.) He told me that after his arrest, he was allowed to emcee a talent show in the jail and his own bandmates surprised him by showing up to perform with him inside, a difficult scenario to imagine today. This earned him the jail nickname “Superstar.”
Officials transferred him to Graterford Prison, north of Philadelphia, where The Power of Attorney was based, but the older members — many of them lifers — were cliquish and kept him out at first. “I get it now, but I was mad at them,” he recalled. “I knew I would fit in perfectly as the frontman.” You can decide whether you agree by listening to songs from before his time, and then Aikens singing on their full-length album.
Rock icon Alice Cooper donated their instruments, and the singer James Brown oversaw the release of the band’s album “From the Inside…” on Polydor Records. Aikens recalled hearing the proceeds went to prison education programs, and that the band had the support of Pennsylvania officials, including Graterford Prison’s first Black prison superintendent, Robert Johnson.
To record at The Hit Factory, in New York City, they needed separate armed guards in each state they passed through — Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York — and the approval of each state’s governor. This was an era when furloughs were more common, and sometimes they’d get to spend entire nights out at industry parties, wearing free-world clothes. When they returned, Aikens told me, other prisoners were stunned and called them “idiots.”
But it was good PR for the state: “It was like we were ambassadors for the prison system,” Aikens told me. “If something was going wrong, they’d roll us out to show what wonderful things they were doing.” He was released in 1976, and the band continued on without him into the 1980s, but the state eventually stopped letting them out to perform.
This September, Aikens performed his first show in decades at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Sadly, none of his Power of Attorney bandmates were there. He’d kept up with bass player Charles McDowell, who was living on the streets; Aikens would sometimes take him in for food and a shower. Ochester had first become interested in the band when McDowell shuffled into his store, looking for a copy of their record, but later learned he’d died.
Ochester is still looking for funding to release Ron & The Hip Tones’ debut album next year. They sent me the lyrics to a forthcoming song called “Criminal.” “I’m sorry for the pain I caused and the people I hurt on the way,” Aikens sings, before turning his pain outward to challenge the listener: “No matter how high I rise, in your eyes I’m still a criminal.”