By Gary: Well, I will be honest; I have been avoiding this subject for some time. Most of you know that I am a huge Sun Records fan, but have not really addressed one of the original artists, J. R. Cash or Johnny Cash. He, along with Luther Perkins (guitar) and Marshall Grant (Bass) compiled a significant path while he was with Sam Phillips.
My main problem is that I am an old Rock and Roller and Johnny is really Country. I am far from an expert on Country and in no way wish to offend or demean any Country fan or artist. So, that being said, I will approach this through the eyes and ears of a 16 year old music fan (which I was), because the information on Johnny Cash is endless and I doubt that I would have any revelations for you. I think that approaching it from a teenagers eyes, for me, is the only way to do it.
John R. “Johnny” Cash
(February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003)
Sun Records (the time I remember)
1. Cry Cry Cry/ was the first song I ever heard by Johnny/ Sun 221/ June 1955/ #14 Country
2. I walk the Line/ Sun 241/ May 1956/ #17 Billboard #1 Country
2. Get Rhythm/ B Side
3. Home of the Blues/ Sun 279/ August 1957/ #88 Billboard #3 C&W
4. Ballad of a Teenage Queen/ Sun 283/ December 1957/ #14 Billboard #1 C&W
4. Big River/ B side
5. Guess things Happen that way/ Sun 295/ May 1958/ #11 Billboard #1 C&W
6. The ways of a Woman in Love/ Sun 302/ August 1958/ Billboard 24 #2 C&W
I think the Sun Record days, where the one’s I remember the best and the one’s I enjoyed the best. I was now 18 and things where changing for me and Johnny. I was finishing High School and Johnny moved to Columbia and changed his sound.
The Columbia Years
1. All Over Again/ Columbia 41251/ November 1958/ #38 Billboard
2. Don’t take your guns to Town/ Columbia 41313/ February 1959/ # 32 Billboard
3. Ring of Fire/ Columbia 42788/ June 1963/ # 17 Billboard
4. Understand your Man/ Columbia 42964/ March 1964/ #35 Billboard
5. Folsom Prison Blues (live)/ Columbia 44513/ June 1968/ #32 Billboard #1 C&W
6. A Boy Named Sue (live, uncensored)/ Columbia 44944/ August 1968/ #2 (3) Billboard # 1 C&W (5)
7. If I were a Carpenter (with June Carter/Bobby Darin Song/ Columbia 45064/ February 1970/
8. What is Truth/ Columbia 45134/ March 1970/ #19 Billboard
9. One Piece at a Time (with the Tennessee Three)/Columbia 10321/May 1976/ #29 Bill #1 (2) C&W
Johnny Cash, born J. R. Cash, (February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003) was a Grammy Award-winning American country singer. Cash is widely considered to be one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century
Johnny Cash was born J. R. Cash in Kingsland, Arkansas, United States, to Ray and Carrie Cash, and raised in Dyess, Arkansas. He was reportedly given the name “J. R.” because his parents could not agree on a name, only on initials. Giving children initials-only names, or a first name and middle initial only, was a common practice at the time.
When he enlisted in the United States Air Force, the military would not accept initials as his name, so he adopted John R. Cash as his legal name. Then when signing with Sun Records in 1955, he took Johnny Cash as his stage name. His friends and in-laws generally called him John, while his blood relatives often continued to call him by his birth name, J. R.
Cash was one of seven children: Reba Hancock, Jack, Joanne Cash-Yates, Tommy, Roy, and Louise Cash Garrett. His younger brother Tommy Cash also became a successful country artist. By age five, J.R. was working in the cotton fields, singing along with his family as they worked.
The family farm was flooded on at least one occasion, which later inspired him to write the song Five Feet High And Rising. His family’s economic and personal struggles during the Depression shaped him as a person and inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties.
Cash was very close to his brother Jack, who was two years older. In 1944, Jack was pulled into a whirling table saw in the mill where he worked, and cut almost in two. He suffered for over a week before he died. There was some talk that Jack’s death might not have been accidental; a local bully was seen running from the shop with blood on his shirt, shortly before Jack was found. However, Cash did not discuss that theory in his autobiography, nor the report in some circles that Cash made investigation of the incident a personal obsession. Cash often spoke of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident. According to Cash: The Autobiography, his father was away that morning, but he and his mother, and Jack himself, all had premonitions or a sense of foreboding about that day, and his mother urged Jack to skip work and go fishing with his brother. Jack insisted on working, as the family needed the money. On his deathbed, Jack said he had visions of Heaven and angels.
Decades later, Cash spoke of looking forward to meeting his brother in Heaven. He wrote that he had seen his brother many times in his dreams, and that Jack always looked two years older than whatever age Cash himself was at that moment. It is widely thought that the dark side of his world view was shaped by this traumatic event.
Cash’s early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. Taught by his mother and a childhood friend, Johnny began playing guitar and writing songs as a young boy. In high school he sang on a local radio station. Decades later, he would release an album of traditional gospel songs, called My Mother’s Hymn Book. Traditional Irish music that he heard weekly on the Jack Benny radio program, performed by Dennis Day, influenced him greatly.
Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, both in San Antonio, Texas, Cash was assigned to a U.S. Air Force Security Service unit at Landsberg, Germany. Assigned as a Morse Code decoder on Russian Army transmissions, Cash was the first American to discover that Josef Stalin had died.
While in Air Force training in 1950, Cash met Vivian Liberto. A month after his discharge, on August 7, 1954, he and Vivian were married. They had four daughters: Rosanne (1955), Kathleen (1956), Cindy (1959), and Tara (1961). However, his constant touring and drug use put intense strain on his marriage, and they divorced in 1966.
In 1954, the couple moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he sold appliances, while studying to be a radio announcer. At night, he played with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Perkins and Grant were known as the Tennessee Two. Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio, hoping to get a recording contract. After auditioning for Sam Phillips, singing mostly gospel songs, Phillips told him to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.” Cash eventually won over Phillips with new songs delivered in his early frenetic style. His first recordings at Sun, “Hey Porter” and “Cry Cry Cry,” were released in 1955 and met with reasonable success on the Country hit parade.
Cash’s next record, Folsom Prison Blues, made the country Top 5, and “I Walk the Line” became No. 1 on the country charts, also making it into the Pop charts Top 20.
Following “I Walk the Line” was Johnny Cash’s “Home of the Blues,” recorded in July 1957.
In 1957, Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. Although he was Sun’s most consistently best-selling and prolific artist at that time, Cash felt constrained by his contract with the small label. Elvis Presley had already left Sun, and Phillips was focusing most of his attention and promotion on Jerry Lee Lewis.
The following year, Cash left the label to sign a lucrative offer with Columbia Records, where his single “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” would become one of his biggest hits.
Video: I Got Stripes – 1958
In the early 60s, Cash toured with the Carter Family, which by this time regularly included Mother Maybelle’s daughters, Anita, June and Helen. June later recalled admiring Johnny from afar, during these tours.
Video: Early video Big River- Grand Ole Opry, 1962
As his career was taking off in the early 1960s, Cash started drinking heavily and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. For a brief time, he shared an apartment in Nashville with Waylon Jennings, who was heavily addicted to amphetamines. Cash used the uppers to stay awake during tours. Friends joked about his “nervousness” and erratic behavior, many ignoring the warning signs of his worsening drug addiction.
Although in many ways spiraling out of control, Cash’s frenetic creativity was still delivering hits. His rendition of “Ring of Fire” was a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the Country charts and entering the Top 20 on the Pop charts. The song was written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore and originally performed by Carter’s sister, but the signature mariachi-style horn arrangement was provided by Cash, who said that it had come to him in a dream. The song describes the personal hell Carter went through as she wrestled with her forbidden love for Cash (they were both married to other people at the time) and as she dealt with Cash’s personal “ring of fire” (drug dependency and alcoholism).
Cash sometimes spoke of his erratic, drug-induced behavior with some degree of bemused detachment. In June 1965, his truck caught fire due to an overheated wheel bearing, triggering a forest fire that burnt several hundred acres in Los Padres National Forest in California. When the judge asked Cash why he did it, Cash said in his characteristically flippant style at the time, “I didn’t do it, my truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.” The fire destroyed 508 acres (2.06 km²), burning the foliage off three mountains and killing 49 of the refuge’s 53 endangered condors. Cash was unrepentant: “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.” The federal government sued him and was awarded $125,127. Johnny eventually settled the case and paid $82,001. Cash said he was the only person ever sued by the government for starting a forest fire.
Although Cash carefully cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he never served a prison sentence. Despite landing in jail seven times for misdemeanors, each stay lasted only a single night. His most infamous run-in with the law occurred while on tour in 1965, when he was arrested by a narcotics squad in El Paso, Texas. The officers suspected that he was smuggling heroin from Mexico, but it was prescription narcotics and amphetamines that the singer had hidden inside his guitar case. Because they were prescription drugs rather than illegal narcotics, he received a suspended sentence.
Johnny Cash and his second wife, June Cash was also arrested on May 11, 1965, in Starkville, Mississippi, for trespassing late at night onto private property to pick flowers. (This incident gave the spark for the song “Starkville City Jail”, which he spoke about on his live At San Quentin prison album.)
The mid 1960s saw Cash release a number of concept albums, including Ballads Of The True West (1965), an experimental double record mixing authentic frontier songs with Cash’s spoken narration, and Bitter Tears (1964), with songs highlighting the plight of the Native Americans. His drug addiction was at its worst at this point, however, and his destructive behavior led to a divorce from his first wife and canceled performances.
In 1967, Cash’s duet with Carter, “Jackson”, won a Grammy Award.
Cash quit using drugs in 1968, after a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave. June, Maybelle, and Eck Carter moved into Cash’s mansion for a month to help him defeat his addiction. Cash proposed onstage to Carter at a concert at the London Gardens in London, Ontario on February 22, 1968; the couple married a week later in Franklin, Kentucky. June had agreed to marry Cash after he had ‘cleaned up’.
Rediscovering his Christian faith, taking an “altar call” in Evangel Temple, a small church in the Nashville area, Cash chose this church over many larger, celebrity churches in the Nashville area because he said that there he was treated like just another parishioner and not a celebrity.
Folsom Prison Blues
While an airman in West Germany, Cash saw the B movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), which inspired him to write an early draft of one of his most famous songs, “Folsom Prison Blues”.
Cash felt great compassion for prisoners. He began performing concerts at various prisons starting in the late 1950s. These performances led to a pair of highly successful live albums, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969).
The Folsom Prison record was introduced by a rendition of his classic “Folsom Prison Blues,” while the San Quentin record included the crossover hit single “A Boy Named Sue,” a Shel Silverstein-penned novelty song that reached No. 1 on the Country charts and No. 2 on the U.S. Top Ten Pop charts. The AM versions of the latter contained a couple of profanities which were edited out. The modern CD versions are unedited and uncensored and thus also longer than the original vinyl albums, though they still retain the audience reaction overdubs of the originals.
Apart from his performances at Folsom Prison and San Quentin and various other U.S. correctional facilities, Cash also performed at the Österåker Prison in Sweden in 1972. The live album På Österåker (“At Österåker”) was released in 1973. Between the songs, Cash can be heard speaking Swedish, which was greatly appreciated by the inmates.
“The Man in Black”
Cash advocated prison reform at his July 1972 meeting with U.S. president Richard Nixon. From 1969 to 1971, Cash starred in his own television show, The Johnny Cash Show, on the ABC network. The singing group The Statler Brothers opened up for him in every episode. Other notable artists who appeared on his show included Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, James Taylor, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan.
Cash had met with Dylan in the mid 1960s and became closer friends when they were neighbors in the late 1960s in Woodstock, New York. Cash was enthusiastic about reintroducing the reclusive Dylan to his audience. Cash sang a duet with Dylan on Dylan’s country album Nashville Skyline and also wrote the album’s Grammy-winning liner notes.
Another artist who received a major career boost from The Johnny Cash Show was songwriter Kris Kristofferson. During a live performance of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” Cash made headlines when he refused to change the lyrics to suit network executives, singing the song with its references to marijuana intact: “On the Sunday morning sidewalks / Wishin’, Lord, that I was stoned.”
By the early 1970s, he had crystallized his public image as “The Man in Black.” He regularly performed dressed all in black, wearing a long black knee-length coat. This outfit stood in contrast to the costumes worn by most of the major country acts in his day: rhinestone suit and cowboy boots.
In 1971, Cash wrote the song “Man in Black” to help explain his dress code:
“We’re doing mighty fine I do suppose/In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes/But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back/Up front there ought to be a man in black.”
He and his band had initially worn black shirts because that was the only matching color they had among their various outfits. He wore other colors on stage early in his career, but he claimed to like wearing black both on and off stage. He stated that, political reasons aside, he simply liked black as his on-stage color. To this day, the United States Navy’s winter blue service uniform is referred to by sailors as “Johnny Cashes,” as the uniform’s shirt, tie, and trousers are actually solid black in color.
In the mid 1970s, Cash’s popularity and number of hit songs began to decline, but his autobiography (the first of two), titled Man in Black, was published in 1975 and sold 1.3 million copies. A second, Cash: The Autobiography, would appear in 1997.
His friendship with Billy Graham led to the production of a movie about the life of Jesus, The Gospel Road, which Cash co-wrote and narrated. The decade saw his religious conviction deepening, and he made many public appearances in an evangelical capacity.
He also continued to appear on television, hosting an annual Christmas special on CBS throughout the 1970s. Later television appearances included a role in an episode of Columbo. He also appeared with his wife on an episode of Little House on the Prairie entitled “The Collection” and gave a performance as John Brown in the 1985 Civil War television mini-series North and South.
He was friendly with every U.S. President starting with Richard Nixon. He was probably closest with Jimmy Carter, who became a very close friend. None of these friendships were about politics (although he supported the Democratic Party). He stated that he found all of them personally charming, noting the fact that it was probably essential to getting oneself elected.
When invited to perform at the White House for the first time in 1972, President Richard Nixon’s office requested that he play “Okie from Muskogee” (a Merle Haggard satirical song about the people who disrespected the youthful drug users and war protesters) and “Welfare Cadillac” (a Guy Drake song that derides the integrity of welfare recipients). Cash declined to play either song and instead played a series of more left-leaning, politically charged songs, including “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” (about a brave Native-American World War II veteran who was racially mistreated upon his return to Arizona), and his own compositions, “What is Truth?” and “Man in Black.”
Cash claimed that the reasons for denying Nixon’s song choices were not knowing them and having fairly short notice to rehearse them, rather than any political reason.
From left to right Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, who formed the country music supergroup, The Highwaymen.
In 1980, Cash became the Country Music Hall of Fame’s youngest living inductee at age forty-eight, but during the 1980s his records failed to make a major impact on the country charts, although he continued to tour successfully. In the mid 1980s, he recorded and toured with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen, making two hit albums.
During this period, Cash appeared as an actor in a number of television films. In 1981, he starred in The Pride of Jesse Hallam. Cash won fine reviews for his work in this film that called attention to adult illiteracy.
In 1983, Cash also appeared as a heroic sheriff in Murder In Coweta County, which co-starred Andy Griffith as his nemesis. This film was based on a real-life Georgia murder case. Cash had tried for years to make the film, for which he won acclaim.
Cash relapsed into addiction after a serious abdominal injury in 1983 caused by an unusual incident in which he was kicked and critically wounded by an ostrich he kept on his farm. He was administered painkillers as part of the recovery process, which led to a return to substance abuse.
At a hospital visit in 1988, this time to watch over Waylon Jennings (who was recovering from a heart attack), Jennings suggested that Cash have himself checked into the hospital for his own heart condition. Doctors recommended preventive heart surgery, and Cash underwent double bypass surgery in the same hospital. Both recovered, although Cash refused to use any prescription painkillers, fearing a relapse into dependency.
Cash later claimed that during his operation, he had what is called a “near death experience”. He said he had visions of Heaven that were so beautiful that he was angry when he woke up alive.
Cash’s recording career and his general relationship with the Nashville establishment were at an all-time low in the 1980s. He realized that his record label of nearly 30 years, Columbia, was growing indifferent to him and wasn’t properly marketing him (he was “invisible” during that time, as he said in his autobiography).
Cash recorded an intentionally awful song to protest, a self-parody. “Chicken in Black” was about Johnny’s brain being transplanted into a chicken. Ironically, the song turned out to be a larger commercial success than any of his other recent material. Nevertheless, he was hoping to kill the relationship with the label before they did, and it was not long after “Chicken in Black” that Columbia and Cash parted ways.
In 1986, Cash returned to Sun Studios in Memphis to team up with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins to create the album Class of ‘55.
This was not the first time he had teamed up with Lewis and Perkins at Sun Studios. On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Phillips to pay a social visit while Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks, with Lewis backing him on piano. Cash was also in the studio and the four started an impromptu jam session. Phillips left the tapes running and the recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived and have been released on CD under the title Million Dollar Quartet. Tracks also include Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, Pat Boone’s “Don’t Forbid Me”, and Elvis doing an impersonation of Jackie Wilson (who was then with Billy Ward and the Dominoes) singing “Don’t Be Cruel”.
In 1986, Cash published his only novel, Man in White, a book about Saul and his conversion to become the Apostle Paul. He also recorded Johnny Cash Reads The Complete New Testament in 1990.
After Columbia Records dropped Cash from his recording contract, he had a short and unsuccessful stint with Mercury Records from 1987 to 1991 (see Johnny Cash discography).
In 1991, Cash sang lead vocals on a cover version of “Man in Black” for the Christian punk band One Bad Pig’s album I Scream Sunday.
His career was rejuvenated in the 1990s, leading to popularity among a younger audience not traditionally interested in Country music.
In 1993, he sang the vocal on U2’s “The Wanderer” for their album Zooropa. Although he was no longer sought after by major labels, Cash was approached by producer Rick Rubin and offered a contract with Rubin’s American Recordings label, better known for rap and hard rock.
Under Rubin’s supervision, he recorded the album American Recordings (1994) in his living room, accompanied only by his guitar. The album featured several covers of contemporary artists selected by Rubin and saw much critical and commercial success, winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Cash wrote that his reception at the 1994 Glastonbury Festival was one of the highlights of his career. This was the beginning of a decade of music industry accolades and surprising commercial success.
Video: I Walk The Line – live from Montreux 1994
Cash and his wife appeared on a number of episodes of the popular television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman starring Jane Seymour. The actress thought so highly of Cash that she later named one of her twin sons after him. He did a cameo in an episode of The Simpsons, playing the voice of a coyote that guides Homer on a spiritual quest.
In 1996, Cash released a sequel to American Recordings, Unchained, and enlisted the accompaniment of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which won a Grammy for Best Country Album. Cash, believing he did not explain enough of himself in his 1975 autobiography Man in Black, wrote another autobiography in 1997 entitled Cash: The Autobiography.
Illness and death
In 1997, Cash was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome. The diagnosis was later altered to autonomic neuropathy associated with diabetes. This illness forced Cash to curtail his touring. He was hospitalized in 1998 with severe pneumonia, which damaged his lungs.
The albums American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) contained Cash’s response to his illness in the form of songs of a slightly more somber tone than the first two American albums. The video for “Hurt”, generally recognized as ‘his epitaph’, from American IV received particular critical and popular acclaim.
June Carter Cash died of complications following heart valve replacement surgery on May 15, 2003, at the age of seventy-three. June had told Cash to keep working, so he continued to record and even performed a couple of surprise shows at the Carter Family Fold outside Bristol, Virginia. (The July 5, 2003, concert was his final public appearance.) At the June 21, 2003, concert, before singing “Ring of Fire”, Cash read a statement about his late wife that he had written shortly before taking the stage. He spoke of how June’s spirit was watching over him and how she had come to visit him before going on stage. He barely made it through the song. Despite his health issues, he spoke of looking forward to the day when he could walk again and toss his wheelchair into the river near his home.
Less than four months after his wife’s death, Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003, while hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 71. He was interred next to his wife in Hendersonville Memory Gardens near his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Cash is survived by his children and 16 grandchildren.
One of Johnny Cash’s final collaborations with producer Rick Rubin, entitled American V: A Hundred Highways, was released posthumously on July 4, 2006. The album debuted in the #1 position on Billboard Magazine’s Top 200 album chart the week ending July 22, 2006. The vocal parts of the track were recorded before Cash’s death, but the other instruments were not recorded until about 2005. American VI, an expected final release, has yet to be issued.