Johnny Cash (February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003) was an American country music singer and songwriter, known to his fans as "The Man in Black", and a member of the outlaw country movement. In a career that spanned almost five decades, he was the personification of country music to many Americans and others around the world who had no other knowledge or interest in that art form. His gravelly voice and the distinctive boom chicka boom sound of his Tennessee Two backing band were instantly recognizable to millions.
Cash was born J.R. Cash in Kingsland, Arkansas, the son of a poor farmer. His family soon moved into a farm in Dyess, Arkansas, which was provided at little cost by the government as part of the New Deal. Cash's father had a severe drinking problem and was physically and emotionally abusive to his family. By age five Cash was working in the cotton fields, singing along with his family as they worked. Cash was very close to his brother Jack. In 1944, a horrible incident occurred that affected Johnny Cash the rest of his life. His beloved brother Jack was killed in an accident. He was pulled into a whirring table saw in the mill where he worked and almost cut in two. He suffered for over a week before he died. Cash always talked of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident because he had gone fishing that day. On his deathbed, the young man had visions of Heaven and angels before he died. Almost sixty years later, Johnny still talked of looking forward to meeting his brother in Heaven. His early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. He began playing guitar and writing songs as a young boy, and in high school sang on a local radio station. He was dubbed "John" upon enlisting as a radio operator in the Air Force, which refused to accept initials as his name. Thereafter, he was known as Johnny and sometimes as John R. While an airman in Germany, Cash wrote one of his most famous songs, Folsom Prison Blues.
After his term of service ended, Cash married Vivian Liberto in 1954 and 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 (the Tennessee Two). Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio, hoping to garner a recording contract. Sun producer Cowboy Jack Clement met with the young singer first, and suggested that Cash return to meet producer Sam Phillips. After auditioning for Phillips, singing mainly gospel tunes, Phillips told him to "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell." Cash eventually won over Phillips and Clement 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 were 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" was number one on the country charts, making it into the pop charts Top 20. In 1957, Johnny Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. Though Sun's most consistently best-selling and prolific artist at that time, Cash began to feel constrained by his contract with the small label. Elvis Presley had already left the label, and Phillips was focusing most of his attention and promotion on Jerry Lee Lewis. The following year, Cash left Sun 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.
In 1955, his daughter, singer Rosanne Cash, was born. Though he would have three more daughters with his wife, their relationship began to sour, as Johnny was constantly touring. It was during one of these tours that he met June Carter, his future wife. By June's account, in the liner notes to the compilation album Love (2000), the song "I Still Miss Someone" was written about her.
"The Man in Black"
From 1969 to 1971, he starred in his own television show on the ABC network. Notable rock artists appeared on his show, including Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Cash had been an early supporter of Dylan even before they had met, but they became friends while they were neighbors in late 1960s Woodstock, New York. Cash was enthusiastic about reintroducing the reclusive Dylan to his audience. In addition to the appearance on his TV show, Cash sang a duet with Dylan on his 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 Morning Coming Down", Cash made headlines when he refused to change the lyrics to suit network executives, singing the song with its controversial references to marijuana intact: "On the Sunday morning sidewalks / Wishin', Lord, that I was stoned".
Immensely popular, and an imposing tall figure, by the early 1970s he had crystallized his public image. He regularly performed dressed all in black, wearing a long black knee-length coat, causing him to be dubbed "The Man in Black". This outfit stood in stark contrast to the costumes worn by most of the major country acts in his day – rhinestone Nudie suits and cowboy boots. In 1971, Johnny wrote the song "Man in Black" to help explain his dress code: "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, / Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town, / I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, / But is there because he's a victim of the times."
In the mid-'70s, Cash's popularity and hit songs began to decline, but his autobiography, titled Man in Black, was published in 1975 and sold 1.3 million copies. (A second, "Cash: The Autobiography", appeared in 1998). 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 in addition to his regular touring schedule, he made many public appearances in an evangelical capacity. He also continued appearing on television, hosting an annual Christmas special on CBS throughout the 1970s. He did a voice cameo on The Simpsons in the show's eighth season, playing the voice of a coyote that guides Homer on a spiritual quest.
In 1980, Cash became the Country Music Hall of Fame's youngest living inductee at age 48, but during the 1980s his records failed to make a major impact on the country charts, though 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.
It was also in this time period that Johnny 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. This film was based on a real life Georgia murder case and Cash had tried for years to make the film that also won acclaim.
Cash relapsed into addiction in the early 1980s, after a stomach injury caused him to begin abusing painkillers. During his recovery at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1986, he met and befriended Ozzy Osbourne, one of his son's favorite singers. At another 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 in to the hospital for his own heart condition. Doctors recommended preventative heart surgery for Cash, and he underwent double bypass surgery in the same hospital. Both recovered, though 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.
As his relationship with record companies and the Nashville establishment soured, he occasionally lapsed into self-parody, notably on "Chicken In Black". After being dropped from his recording contract with Columbia Records, he had a short and unsuccessful stint with Mercury Records.
In 1986 Cash published his only novel, Man in White, a book about Saul and his conversion in becoming the Apostle Paul.
Sickness and death
In 1997 Cash was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome — a diagnosis that was later altered to autonomic neuropathy, associated with diabetes — and his illness forced him to curtail his touring; he was hospitalised in 1998 with severe pneumonia, which damaged his lungs. The album American III: Solitary Man (2000) contained his response to the illness, typified by a version of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down", as well as a powerful reading of U2's "One".
Cash released American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002), consisting partly of original material and partly of covers, some quite surprising. The video for "Hurt", a song written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, was nominated in seven categories at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards and won the award for Best Cinematography. It also won a Grammy for Best Short Form Video at the 2004 Grammy Awards.
His wife, June Carter Cash, died due to complications following heart valve surgery on May 15, 2003 at the age of 73.
Less than four months after his wife's death, Johnny Cash died at the age of 71 due to complications from diabetes, which resulted in respiratory failure, while hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. He was interred next to his wife in Hendersonville Memory Gardens near his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
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 as both a living legend and an alternative country icon in the 1990s, Cash has influenced countless artists and left a body of work matched only by the greatest artists of his time. Upon his death, Cash was revered and eulogized by many of the greatest popular musicians of our day, whose comments on the man and his work reflect something of the esteem in which he was held.
Cash nurtured and defended artists on the fringes of what was acceptable in country music, even while serving as the country music establishment's most visible symbol. At an all-star concert in 2002, a diverse group of artists paid him tribute, including Bob Dylan, Chris Isaak, Wyclef Jean, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and U2. Two tribute albums were released shortly before his death; Kindred Spirits contains works from established artists, while Dressed In Black contains works from many lesser-known artists.
Though he wrote over a thousand songs and released dozens of albums, his creative output was not entirely silenced by his death. A box set, titled Unearthed, was issued posthumously. It included four CDs of unreleased material recorded with Rubin, as well as a "Best of Cash on American" retrospective CD. American V, his final album, will be released posthumously.
In recognition of his lifelong support of SOS Children's Villages, his family invited friends and fans to donate to that charity in his memory. He had a personal link with the SOS village in Ammersee in Diessen, Germany, near where he was stationed as a GI, and also with the SOS village in Barrat Town, by Montego Bay near his holiday home in Jamaica.