When Johnny Cash began performing on stage, he and his band agreed to wear matching shirts, selecting the color black because it was easier to appear to be clean despite the repeated wearings during a series of performances, often several in a single day. By the 1970s this had evolved to Cash appearing dressed in black from head to toe, often with black sunglasses, and usually wearing a long black coat. His appearance was a notable separation from the majority of country and western stars of the day, who favored rhinestones, decorated hats, and flamboyant suits and other garb. Cash later explained his reasons for favoring black, both in the song Man in Black and in interviews.
Cash explained that he wore black as a sign of mourning for those killed in Vietnam, and for their families in sympathy for their loss. He claimed black was a protest against prisoners being held under sentences which were far too long in relation to the gravity of their crime. He also claimed it was a symbol that he stood for the poor and suffering around the country and the world, and once said that black stood for those whose lives had been torn apart by drugs. In another interview he said that he wore black simply because he liked the color. By the 1970s, especially following his successful television show, Cash was known as the Man in Black to the point that advertisers started to exploit his image.
16. Cash became a marketing icon in the mid-seventies
In the mid-1970s Johnny Cash had gone some time without a hit record, and the sales of his older recordings began to decline. The mid-seventies also featured the first oil crisis in the United States, and the oil companies were widely believed to be gouging the public, bringing what the president referred to as “windfall’ profits while there were shortages of gasoline at the pumps. Cash chose this period to participate in an advertising campaign for Amoco, which also cut into his popularity, despite his reputation for integrity in expressing his opinions. He made a second campaign for STP, a petroleum and gasoline additive which claimed to increase gas mileage, a new consideration for Americans.
He also built on his image as a country and western star to participate in a marketing campaign for Lionel electric trains. By the 1970s electric trains in general were losing popularity to slot cars and other model cars, and those electric trains which did sell were for the most part the smaller HO gauge. The bigger Lionel trains and the larger track sets they required were dying out. Cash called on the traditions of Lionel trains for Christmas in a series of commercials which kept his image on television, themed by his music, during the middle of the decade. Lionel sales continued to drop as the idea of electric trains around the Christmas tree was replaced with a growing number of electronic toys.
Johnny Cash and Billy Graham became close friends, which led to them working together to produce the project The Gospel Road, a film and soundtrack album released in 1973. The film tells the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as written by Cash, and the soundtrack album contains numerous songs from throughout his career, connected by narrations during which Cash describes action on the screen during the film. Cash considered the film, which he wrote, to be an explanation of his personal religious beliefs, rather than a strict presentation of the biblical story, and it is reflected in the songs which are selected for the film. The songs include gospel recordings along with his signature, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.
Johnny and June Carter appeared in numerous Billy Graham Crusades, including several of the evangelist’s TV specials, though he also backslid into drug abuse during the period. Cash recorded an album of gospel songs which he named A Believer Sings the Truth, though Columbia refused to release it when he presented it to executives in 1979. Despite being under contract to Columbia Records, Cash released the album on a private label. Cash’s involvement with Billy Graham was amplified by his own Christmas specials, and his frequent inclusion of gospel and religious music on his more mainstream country albums during the 1970s.
18. He gained respect as a serious actor in movies made for television
Besides his work as the host of his own show, Johnny Cash gained critical acclaim for acting performances in several made-for-television movies, as well as being a guest star in both mini-series and episodic television. His first appearance in film was in 1961, in the noir film Five Minutes to Live. It was not well received. In 1971 Cash appeared with Kirk Douglas in The Gunfight, a film paid for by the Jicarilla Apache tribe, in which he shared top billing, but the film did little at the box office. He also did narration for a 2003 film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro, as well as voiceover work in other films of a documentary nature.
But in television he demonstrated his considerable acting ability, in both sit-coms and episodes of crime dramas, including a well-received episode of Columbo in 1974, and another on Little House on the Prairie in 1976. He was in the miniseries North and South, portraying abolitionist John Brown during the build-up to the American Civil War. He produced and starred in the television films The Pride of Jesse Hallam; The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (as Frank James); and a remake of the film Stagecoach, in which he played Curly Rogers. He made several appearances on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and also appeared in a voiceover on The Simpsons, as Space Coyote. He had many other roles, throughout his successful career on the small screen.
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