18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash

Larry Holzwarth - September 21, 2018

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
The least well known of the $1 million quartet was Jerry Lee Lewis, who dominate the sound during their impromptu recording session. Wikimedia

10. He was one fourth of the Million Dollar Quartet in December 1956

On December 4, 1956, Carl Perkins, fresh off his hit song Blue Suede Shoes, went into Sun Studios in Memphis to record a follow up record. Sam Phillips wanted to broaden the sound, and for the session brought in a relatively unknown piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis. While the session was underway Elvis Presley dropped in to say hello to Sam, bringing with him his then girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. Johnny Cash was at the studio as well, both to listen to Perkins record Matchbox and to discuss possible work with Perkins’s drummer at the time, W. S. Holland. Both Cash and Elvis had an affinity for gospel music, and before long both were in the studio, singing brief passages of gospel tunes.

Unknown to any of the musicians at the time, Phillips had his engineer record the impromptu sessions, which did not last long as the flamboyant Jerry Lee Lewis was soon dominating the sound with his playing on a Wurlitzer spinet piano. Presley, the biggest star at the time of the four, was the first to withdraw, but not before Bob Johnson, an editor with the Memphis Press-Scimitar, arrived with a UPI reporter and a photographer, having been shrewdly summoned by Sam Phillips. A story and photograph appeared in the Memphis newspaper the following day, headlined Million Dollar Quartet. The recordings have been released several times with different track listings, and in 1982 Cash reunited with Perkins and Lewis for more recordings, releasing an album they called The Survivors Live.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Publicity photo of Johnny Cash performing with Cass Elliott of the Mamas and the Papas on The Johnny Cash Show in 1969. ABC Television

11. A Georgia arrest led to his first attempt to quit drugs

In the biopic I Walk the Line credit for helping Johnny Cash quit abusing amphetamines was given to June Carter, with the aid of her mother Maybelle and other members of the Carter Family. Little is said about the efforts of a Georgia sheriff named Ralph Jones, who as sheriff of rural Walker County knew his constituents well and had a no-nonsense approach towards crime and criminal behavior in his jurisdiction, which in 1967 included zero tolerance for illegal drugs. Jones was also a fan of Johnny Cash when the singer was arrested by one of his deputies that year, for trespassing, public intoxication, and possession of a significant amount of prescription drugs. Cash also attempted to bribe the arresting officer into letting him go free.

Jones went to see the troubled singer in his cell in the county jail in Lafayette, Georgia, and after a long talk during which the sheriff tried to get Cash to face his drug issues, gave him back his money and drugs, dropped the charges, and sent Cash on his way with the warning that whether Cash lived or killed himself was strictly up to him. He prophesied that if Cash didn’t seek help for his addictions, the latter would be the inevitable result. Cash later wrote that the Georgia sheriff saved his life, and thanked him face to face on national television. He later returned to Lafayette to perform a benefit concert, raising $75,000 for the athletic program for the local high school, and remained in touch with the sheriff for years after.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Cash decided to commit suicide in Nickajack Cave near Lookout Mountain before a spiritual epiphany deterred him. Wikimedia

12. He attempted suicide in early 1968 in Nickajack Cave

Despite Cash later giving credit to Sheriff Jones for helping him turn himself around following his 1967 arrest, Johnny continued taking pills at an impressive rate, speed to keep him working and tranquilizers to calm him down. Although he recorded the successful song Jackson with June Carter, he continued to live separately, sharing quarters with Waylon Jennings, who also was addicted to the same drugs as Cash. The two singers took to hiding their stash of drugs and the atmosphere was one of paranoia and delusion. According to Cash he was by early 1968 completely strung out on drugs, and he decided to commit suicide by crawling so far into Nickajack Cave that he would be unable to find his way out taking with him a fatal dose.

Nickajack Cave is the site of an Indian massacre and a position in which deserting Confederate soldiers took shelter during and after the Battle of Lookout Mountain. Portions of the cave are flooded. Cash entered the cave after taking several pills, carrying others with which to facilitate his suicide, when he had what he described as an epiphany. After the spiritual experience in the cave he decided to enter into rehab, and crawled back to the entrance, where he found June and Maybelle Carter waiting for him, as he wrote in his autobiography. Cash had always had a strong religious streak, and following the Nickajack experience his religious activities and convictions grew stronger, as was reflected in his musical performances.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Ralph Edwards hosted the popular NBC program This is Your Life, surprising celebrities on their own programs, as he did Johnny Cash during a taping of The Johnny Cash Show. NBC Television

13. The Johnny Cash Show began as a summer replacement for The Hollywood Palace

When Johnny Cash was approached to host a summer replacement variety show he was given a wide latitude of creative freedom, though he was still required to present the show business luminaries which attracted advertisers. Although the program originated in Nashville, Cash did not limit his musical performers to country and western stars. Bob Dylan appeared on the program, as did Joni Mitchell, The Cowsills (real life inspiration for the Partridge Family), The Monkees, Melanie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many other acts from outside the world of country music. Cash was not above generating controversy either, supporting performances of protest songs which opposed the Vietnam War.

During one taping of the show June Carter appeared, and told the host that she wanted to introduce a friend before bringing Ralph Edwards onstage for a presentation of This Is Your Life, featuring Cash. It was during the taping that Cash publicly thanked Sheriff Ralph Jones, who appeared on the program. The Johnny Cash Show was canceled in 1971, though CBS reprised the program for four weeks in 1976. That same year began a series of Christmas specials featuring Johnny and the Carter Family, which aired almost annually through 1985. The programs on CBS were more focused on comedy and holiday music, rather than the eclectic collection of musical performers which Johnny had featured on his weekly series.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
In the 1970s Johnny Cash’s rejuvenated image led to his developing friendships with several US Presidents, including Jimmy Carter as seen here. National Archives

14. The Johnny Cash prison concerts

Johnny Cash began playing concerts in prisons and county jails in the late 1950s, during the height of his first period of heavy drug use. On New Year’s Day, 1958, Johnny Cash and his entourage played a concert at San Quentin State Prison, with one of the inmates who saw him perform being a twenty year old petty thief and burglar named Merle Haggard. Haggard was serving a fifteen year sentence for a burglary for which he had been convicted two years earlier, at the age of eighteen. Haggard was released early for that conviction, in part because of his youth, and left prison determined to become a musician, admiring Cash for his arrogance towards the guards, which created for him a new base of fans for him and his music.

In 1968 Cash played a concert at Folsom Prison, which he recorded and released as a live album which rejuvenated his flagging career. The following year he recorded a concert at San Quentin, which led to another successful album. Both of the albums reached number one on the country music charts. In 1969 Cash sold more records than the Beatles, with 6.5 million shipped. He played a concert in a Swedish prison in 1972, Osteraker Prison, producing another live album (in which Osteraker was substituted for San Quentin) and in 1976 performed at a Tennessee prison, which was videotaped for television. The prison concerts coupled with Cash’s bad boy image produced a perception among some of his newly won fans that Cash was a former prison inmate, which though widespread was untrue.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Former US Marine Ira Hayes (left), one of the men who raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima, became the subject of controversy for Cash in his song, The Ballad of Ira Hayes. UCLA Library

15. He became a Native American activist in song and actions

As early as during his first albums for Columbia Records in the late 1950s, Cash was recording songs describing the plight of American Indians, in terms sympathetic to the Indians, and was encountering resistance from his label due to his position being in opposition to mainstream country and western fans of the day. In 1964, following the success of his song I Walk the Line, he recorded an album entitled Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. It was Cash’s twentieth album, and was rejected by radio stations and fans for its perceived anti-American stance. Cash decided to fight back against the censorship by mainstream country radio stations and promoted the album heavily.

One song in particular, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, told the story of Pima native Ira Hayes, one of the six Marines who raised the American flag during the battle for Iwo Jima. Cash created a full page advertisement for the song in Billboard Magazine, calling radio stations and disk jockeys who refused to play it cowards and “gutless”. He personally purchased 1,000 copies of the record and distributed it to radio stations, encouraging and in some instances daring them to play the record. Eventually The Ballad of Ira Hayes rose to number three on the country charts, driving sales of the album with it. Bitter Tears reached number two on the album charts later in the year, and Cash’s reputation as a supporter of Indian rights was cemented by his other work on television and in interviews.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash carefully nurtured an outlaw image while living a lifestyle that often mimicked one, nearly always clad in black onstage. Getty

15. Becoming the legendary Man in Black

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.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
By the mid-1970s Cash was a marketing icon for numerous consumer products, with advertisers relying on his longstanding image of honesty. Rockapedia

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.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Billy Graham, seen here in the Oval Office with President Gerald R. Ford, was a close friend and business associate of Johnny Cash, who frequently performed at Graham’s crusades. White House

17. Johnny Cash and the Billy Graham Crusades

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 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Kris Kristofferson (far left with guitar) and Johnny Cash worked on several projects together, including made-for-television movies including a remake of the 1939 classic Stagecoach. Wikimedia

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.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Cash: The Autobiography”. Johnny Cash. 1997

“The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love, and Faith of an American Legend”. Steven Turner. 2005

“How Sam Phillips Discovered the Sound of Rock and Roll”. Matt Blitz, Popular Mechanics Magazine. August 15, 2016

“Johnny Cash’s first wife tells of romance, heartbreak”. Brett Johnson, VC Star. October 26, 2016

“The Time Johnny Cash Set Fire to a National Forest”. Johnny Whiteside, LA Weekly. June 13, 2014

“Tales From the Morgue: The Man in Black (mail)”. Trish Long, El Paso Times, April 25, 2008

“Sam Phillips: The Rolling Stone Interview”. Elizabeth Kaye, Rolling Stone Magazine. February 13, 1986

“I Was There When It Happened: My Life With Johnny Cash”. Marshall Grant. 2006

“Root of Cash’s hit tunes”. Robert Hilburn. The Los Angeles Times. August 22, 2006

“Christgau’s Consumer Guide”. Robert Christgau, The Village Voice. February 23, 1988

“The Time Johnny Cash was Arrested in Walker County”. Jerry Summers, Times Free Press. July 24, 2016

“The stories of Johnny Cash”. Todd Leopold, CNN Entertainment. December 31, 2013

“Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan Tape TV Number in Nashville”. Patrick Thomas, Rolling Stone Magazine. June 1, 1969

“Johnny Cash and his prison reform campaign”. Danny Robins, BBC World News Service. January 23, 2013

“Johnny Cash Risked His Career to Take a Stand”. Antonini D’Ambrosio, The New York Times. August 27, 2014

“Flashback: See Johnny Cash’s Style-Defining ‘Man in Black’ in 1971”. Stephen L. Betts, Rolling Stone Country, February 16, 2016. Online

“Johnny Cash, Trend Chaser”. Noah Berlatsky, The Atlantic. March 26, 2014

“For Johnny Cash, Billy Graham was friend and confidant”. Juli Thanki, USA Today Network, Tennessean. February 21, 2018

“Rewind: The Uneven Acting Legacy of Johnny Cash”. Kurt Heitmueller, MTV online. November 14, 2005

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