John R. "Johnny" Cash (February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003), was an American singer-songwriter, actor, and author, who has been called one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Although he is primarily remembered as a country music icon, his songs and sound spanned many other genres including rockabilly and rock and roll—especially early in his career—as well as blues, folk, and gospel. This crossover appeal led to Cash being inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Cash was known for his deep, distinctive bass-baritone voice; for the "boom-chicka-boom" sound of his Tennessee Three backing band; for his rebelliousness, coupled with an increasingly somber and humble demeanor; for providing free concerts inside prison walls; and for his dark performance clothing, which earned him the nickname "The Man in Black". He traditionally started his concerts by saying, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." and usually following it up with his standard "Folsom Prison Blues".
Much of Cash's music, especially that of his later career, echoed themes of sorrow, moral tribulation and redemption.
His signature songs include "I Walk the Line", "Folsom Prison Blues", "Ring of Fire", "Get Rhythm" and "Man in Black".
He also recorded humorous numbers, including "One Piece at a Time" and "A Boy Named Sue"; a duet with his future wife, June Carter, called "Jackson"; as well as railroad songs including "Hey, Porter" and "Rock Island Line".
Late in his career, Cash covered songs by several rock artists, most notably "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails.
Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, the fourth of seven children to Ray Cash. Cash was named J. R. Cash because his parents couldn't think of a name. When Cash enlisted in the Air Force, they wouldn't let him use initials as his name, so he started to use the legal name John R. Cash. In 1955, when signing with Sun Records, he took Johnny Cash as his stage name.
In March 1935, when Cash was three years old, the family settled in Dyess, Arkansas. He started working in cotton fields at age five, singing along with his family simultaneously while working. The family farm was flooded on at least two occasions, which later inspired him to write the song "Five Feet High and Rising". His family's economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties.
Cash was very close to his older brother, Jack. In May 1944, Jack was pulled into a whirling head saw in the mill where he worked and was almost cut in two. He suffered for over a week before he died on May 20, 1944, at age 15. 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, causing his mother to urge 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.
Cash's early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. Taught by his mother and a childhood friend, Cash began playing guitar and writing songs as a young boy. In high school he sang on a local radio station; decades later he released an album of traditional gospel songs, called My Mother's Hymn Book. He was also significantly influenced by traditional Irish music that he heard performed weekly by Dennis Day on the Jack Benny radio program.
Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force on July 7, 1950. 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, assigned as a Morse Code Intercept Operator for Soviet Army transmissions at Landsberg, Germany "where he created his first band named The Landsberg Barbarians." He was the first radio operator to pick up the news of the death of Joseph Stalin. After he was honorably discharged as a Staff Sergeant on July 3, 1954, he returned to Texas.
Marriages and family
On July 18, 1951, while in Air Force training, Cash met 17-year-old Vivian Liberto at a roller skating rink in her native San Antonio. They dated for three weeks, until Cash was deployed to Germany for a three-year tour. During that time, the couple exchanged hundreds of pages of love letters. On August 7, 1954, one month after his discharge, they were married at St. Anne's Catholic church in San Antonio. The ceremony was performed by her uncle, Father Vincent Liberto. They had four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara. Cash's drug and alcohol abuse, constant touring, and affairs with other women, and his close relationship with future wife June Carter, led Liberto to file for divorce in 1966.
In 1968, 13 years after they first met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Cash proposed to June Carter, an established country singer, during a live performance in London, Ontario, marrying on March 1, 1968, in Franklin, Kentucky. They had one child together, John Carter Cash (born March 3, 1970). They continued to work together and tour for 35 years, until June Carter died in 2003. Cash died just four months later. Carter co-wrote one of Cash's biggest hits, "Ring of Fire," with singer Merle Kilgore. She and Cash won two Grammy awards for their duets.
Vivian Liberto claims a different version of the origins of "Ring of Fire" in I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny, stating that Cash gave Carter the credit for monetary reasons.
Public bench plaque, Falkland, FifeCash's heritage was a British Isles mix. He learned upon researching his heritage that he was of Scottish royal descent on his father's side, traced back to Malcolm IV of Scotland. After meeting with now-dead laird Major Michael Crichton-Stuart of Falkland, Fife, Scotland, Johnny traced the Cash family tree to eleventh-century Fife; Cash Loch and other locations in Fife bear the name of his family.
Cash also had English and Scots-Irish ancestry. Though he did not have American Indian ancestry, his empathy and compassion for Native American Indians were unabated. These feelings were expressed in several of his songs, including "Apache Tears" and "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", and on his album, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.
In 1954, Cash and Vivian 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 that he didn't record gospel music any longer. It was once rumored that Phillips told Cash to "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell," though in a 2002 interview Cash denied that Phillips made any such comment. Cash eventually won over the producer with new songs delivered in his early rock'a'billy style. In 1955 Cash made his first recordings at Sun, "Hey Porter" and "Cry! Cry! Cry!", which were released in late June and met with success on the country hit parade.
Cash (standing at right) with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley.On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Phillips while Carl Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks, with Jerry Lee 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 since been released under the title Million Dollar Quartet. In Cash: the Autobiography, Cash wrote that he was the one farthest from the microphone and was singing in a higher pitch to blend in with Elvis.
Cash's next record, "Folsom Prison Blues", made the country Top 5, and "I Walk the Line" became No. 1 on the country charts and entered the pop charts Top 20. "Home of the Blues" followed, recorded in July 1957. That same year Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. Although he was Sun's most consistently selling and prolific artist at that time, Cash felt constrained by his contract with the small label partly due to the fact that Phillips wasn't keen on Johnny recording gospel, and he was only getting a 3% royalty as opposed to the standard rate of 5%. Presley had already left Sun, and Phillips was focusing most of his attention and promotion on 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" became one of his biggest hits.
In the early 1960s, Cash toured with the Carter Family, which by this time regularly included Mother Maybelle's daughters, Anita, June and Helen. June later recalled admiring him from afar during these tours.
In the 1960s he appeared on Pete Seeger's short lived television series Rainbow Quest. He also acted in a 1961 film entitled Five Minutes to Live, later re-released as Door-to-door Maniac. He also wrote and sang the opening theme.
As his career was taking off in the late 1950s, 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. In a behind-the-scenes look at The Johnny Cash Show, Cash claims to have "tried every drug there was to try."
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. The song was originally performed by June's sister, but the signature mariachi-style horn arrangement was provided by Cash, who said that it had come to him in a dream.
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, "I didn't do it, my truck did, and it's dead, so you can't question it." The fire destroyed 508 acres (206 ha), 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 $125,172 ($923,127 in 2012 dollars). Cash eventually settled the case and paid $82,001. He 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 October 4 by a narcotics squad in El Paso, Texas. The officers suspected that he was smuggling heroin from Mexico, but it was 688 Dexedrine capsules and 475 Equanil tablets 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 CarterCash was later 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.)
In the mid 1960s, Cash released 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, and his destructive behavior led to a divorce from his first wife and canceled performances.
In 1967, Cash's duet with June Carter, "Jackson", won a Grammy Award.
Johnny Cash's final arrest was in Walker County, Georgia where he was taken in after being involved in a car accident while carrying a bag of prescription pills. Cash attempted to bribe a local deputy, who turned the money down, and then spent the night in a LaFayette, Georgia jail. The singer was released after a long talk with Sheriff Ralph Jones, who warned him of his dangerous behavior and wasted potential. Johnny credited that experience for saving his life, and he later came back to LaFayette to play a benefit concert that attracted 12,000 people (the city population was less than 9,000 at the time) and raised $75,000 for the high school.
Cash curtailed his use of drugs for several years in 1968, after a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave, when he attempted to commit suicide while under the heavy influence of drugs. He descended deeper into the cave, trying to lose himself and "just die", when he passed out on the floor. He reported to be exhausted and feeling at the end of his rope when he felt God's presence in his heart and managed to struggle out of the cave (despite the exhaustion) by following a faint light and slight breeze. To him, it was his own rebirth. June, Maybelle, and Ezra Carter moved into Cash's mansion for a month to help him conquer his addiction. Cash proposed onstage to June at a concert at the London Gardens in London, Ontario on February 22, 1968; the couple married a week later (on March 1) in Franklin, Kentucky. June had agreed to marry Cash after he had "cleaned up". He rediscovered his Christian faith, taking an "altar call" in Evangel Temple, a small church in the Nashville area, pastored by Rev. Jimmie Rodgers Snow, son of country music legend Hank Snow.
According to longtime friend Marshall Grant, Cash's 1968 rebirth experience did not result in his completely stopping use of amphetamines. However, in 1970, Cash ended all drug use for a period of seven years. Grant claims that the birth of Cash's son, John Carter Cash, inspired Cash to end his dependence. Cash began using amphetamines again in 1977. By 1983, he was once again addicted, and entered the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, California for rehabilitation. Cash managed to stay off drugs for several years, but by 1989, he was dependent again and entered Nashville's Cumberland Heights Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center. In 1992, he entered the Loma Linda Behavioural Medicine Centre in Loma Linda, California for his final rehabilitation (several months later, his son followed him into this facility for treatment).
Folsom Prison Blues
Cash felt great compassion for prisoners. He began performing concerts at various prisons starting in the late 1950s. His first ever prison concert was held on January 1, 1958 at San Quentin State Prison. 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.
In addition to his performances at U.S. prisons, 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 United States President Richard Nixon.From 1969 to 1971, Cash starred in his own television show, The Johnny Cash Show, on the ABC network. The Statler Brothers opened up for him in every episode; the Carter Family and rockabilly legend Carl Perkins were also part of the regular show entourage. However, Cash also enjoyed booking more mainstream performers as guests; such notables included Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition (who appeared a record four times on his show), James Taylor, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton (then leading Derek and the Dominos), and Bob Dylan. During the same period, he contributed the title song and other songs to the film Little Fauss and Big Halsey, which starred Robert Redford, Michael J. Pollard, and Lauren Hutton. The title song, The Ballad of Little Fauss and Big Halsey, written by Carl Perkins, was nominated for a Golden Globe award.
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.
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."
Cash attired in black performing in Bremen, Northern Germany, in September 1972. He wore black on behalf of the poor and hungry, on behalf of "the prisoner who has long paid for his crime", and on behalf of those who have been betrayed by age or drugs. "And," Cash added, "with the Vietnam War as painful in my mind as it was in most other Americans', I wore it 'in mournin' for the lives that could have been.' ... Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don't see much reason to change my position ... The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we're not making many moves to make things right. There's still plenty of darkness to carry off."
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 US Navy's winter blue uniform is referred to by sailors as "Johnny Cashes", as the uniform's shirt, tie, and trousers are solid black.
In the mid 1970s, Cash's popularity and number of hit songs began to decline. He made commercials for Amoco, an unpopular enterprise in an era in which oil companies made high profits while consumers suffered through high gasoline prices and shortages. However, 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, appeared in 1997. His friendship with Billy Graham led to the production of a film about the life of Jesus, The Gospel Road, which Cash co-wrote and narrated.
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 (Swan Song). 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 American Civil War television mini-series North and South. Johnny and June also appeared in Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman (TV series) as a recurring couple. Cash also had a starring role in a Columbo film.
He was friendly with every US President starting with Richard Nixon. He was closest to Jimmy Carter, with whom he became close friends. He stated that he found all of them personally charming, noting that this was probably essential to getting oneself elected.
When invited to perform at the White House for the first time in 1970, Richard Nixon's office requested that he play "Okie from Muskogee" (a satirical Merle Haggard song about people who despised youthful drug users and war protesters) and "Welfare Cadillac" (a Guy Drake song which denies the integrity of welfare recipients). Cash declined to play either and instead selected other songs, including "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" (about a brave Native American World War II veteran who was mistreated upon his return to Arizona), and his own compositions, "What Is Truth" and "Man in Black". Cash wrote 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. However, Cash added, even if Nixon's office had given Cash enough time to learn and rehearse the songs, their choice of pieces that conveyed "antihippie and antiblack" sentiments might have backfired.
In 1997, Cash was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome, a form of multiple system atrophy. 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 that was released for "Hurt", a cover of the song by Nine Inch Nails, fits Cash's view of his past and feelings of regret. The video for the song, from American IV, is now generally recognized as "his epitaph," and received particular critical and popular acclaim.
Cash's grave (top) and the Cash/Carter memorial (bottom)June Carter Cash died on May 15, 2003, at the age of 73. June had told Cash to keep working, so he continued to record, completing 60 more songs in the last four months of his life, and even performed a couple of surprise shows at the Carter Family Fold outside Bristol, Virginia. At the July 5, 2003, concert (his last public performance), before singing "Ring of Fire", Cash read a statement about his late wife that he had written shortly before taking the stage:
The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has.
While hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Cash died of complications from diabetes at approximately
2:00 a.m. CT on September 12, 2003 - less than four months after his wife. It was suggested that Johnny's health worsened due to a broken heart over June's death. He was buried next to his wife in Hendersonville Memory Gardens near his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
On May 24, 2005, Vivian Liberto, Cash's first wife and the mother of Rosanne Cash and three other daughters, died at the age of 71 from complications from surgery to remove lung cancer. It was her daughter Rosanne's 50th birthday.
In June 2005, Cash's lakeside home on Caudill Drive in Hendersonville was put up for sale by his estate. In January 2006, the house was sold to Bee Gees vocalist Barry Gibb
and wife Linda and titled to their Florida limited liability company for $2.3 million. The listing agent was Cash's younger brother, Tommy Cash. On April 10, 2007, during a major restoration of the property by the new owner, Cash's home was accidentally destroyed in a spontaneous combustion-ignited fire caused by workers using linseed oil products.
One of 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 No.
1 position on the Billboard Top 200 album chart for the week ending July 22, 2006.
On February 23, 2010, three days before what would have been Cash's 78th birthday, the Cash Family, Rick Rubin, and Lost Highway Records released his second posthumous record, titled American VI: Ain't No Grave.
From his early days as a pioneer of rockabilly and rock and roll in the 1950s, to his decades as an international representative of country music, to his resurgence to fame in the 1990s as a living legend and an alternative country icon, Cash influenced countless artists and left a large body of work. Upon his death, Cash was revered by the greatest popular musicians of his time. His rebellious image and often anti-authoritarian stance influenced punk rock.