For uncounted thousands of prisoners across America, a performance by harpist Linda Rice was a chance to listen and see something completely unexpected, entertaining and inspiring.
Linda is known as “The Harp Lady” in hundreds of prisons across the country. Her husband, Willis, accompanied her on concert trips, hauling her blue harp in an aging van and handling the sound equipment. She also performed a Christmas-time piano concert at the White House for President George W. Bush.
The couple had performed close to a 1,000 times behind bars, touching the hearts of the incarcerated at every stop. However, after years of performing at federal and state prisons, Linda decided to retire.
“When we knew it was over, we just sat in our motel room and cried,” said Linda.
Without the use of soundtracks, or any other musical accompaniment, Linda would fuse such diverse sounds as Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” with traditional Gospel songs. At the same time, and with clarity, the audience could hear both tunes coming through.
“The harp is the most ergonomically incorrect instrument a person can play,” explained Willis.
In preparation for performances, Willis said Linda would practice more than eight hours a day. Each performance is well-orchestrated, Willis explained. While Linda was on stage, playing the harp and sharing stories between songs, he would work the portable soundboard. The audio engineer for the rock band “The Who” had put together their equipment at the start, he said. They only needed an electrical outlet to perform.
The reactions have been the same at every prison where they performed, Willis said. It would begin with the audience sitting with arms crossed over chest, politely watching and waiting for the lady in the glittering jacket to perform. Every concert ended with enthusiastic applause and requests for them to come back soon.
Willis was a Lieutenant Colonel flying out of Travis Air Force Base who retired after 22 years of service. He piloted enormous military transport jets, while Linda taught piano and harp near the base. After he traded in his wings for time with his wife, they took off out on the road.
Their first concerts were only in churches, but while in Colorado, they performed at one of the federal institutions.
Performing at the first prison was all it took to help the couple find their calling of putting smiles on many prisoners’ faces, Linda said.
During the prison performances, they would speak of their shared Christian faith. Linda said they were often surprised by the reception from inside.
Willis’ cancer diagnosis in 2004 nearly forced the couple to stop touring. Doctors told them it was time to “enjoy” what time Willis had left. Despite the cancer diagnosis, they continued performing and asked prisoners to join them in prayer for his healing. At one point, Willis was on his deathbed, but now doctors report he is cancer-free. They said that they are convinced it is a miracle from God.
Over time, they have cut back to only visiting California prisons. They said that they consider San Quentin their prison. They’d test new musical pieces here before taking them to other prisons.
While still being involved at San Quentin, Linda now only plays the piano at the nearby Tiburon Baptist Church.
“We’ve had more friends than any two people deserve,” said Willis, who has been married to Linda for 47 years. “Our lives are so rich and full, both inside and outside of prison.”