Born J.R. Cash, 26 February 1932, Kingsland, Arkansas
Johnny Cash is probably the most famous country singer of all time, an international ambassador of American roots music. A prolific songwriter and an astute selector of songs from the pens of others, he has reached out to folk and rock sources for his enormous repertory, and his music has consistently appealed to both rock and country audiences.
One of seven children, Cash grew up in Dyess, Arkansas, where he was raised on a diet of country music. When he was 12, his 14-year old brother and hero, Jack, died after an accident while sawing oak trees into fence posts. The tragedy had a lasting impact on Cash and he later pointed to it as a possible reason his music was frequently melancholy. By his own account, Cash’s “four, long miserable years” in the Air Force were relieved only by playing music with fellow southerners. While stationed in Germany, they formed a group called the Landsberg Barbarians and Cash started writing material for them. After leaving the Air Force in mid-1954 he and his wife Vivian moved to Memphis where he was employed as an appliance salesman while trying to break into the music business. Through his older brother Ray, who worked as an automobile mechanic, Cash met three other Memphis mechanics who had formed a hillbilly band. Luther Perkins played electric guitar, Marshall Grant had just bought a bass, Red Kernodle played steel guitar and Cash did most of the singing, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.
After several vain attempts, Cash succeeded in meeting Sam Phillips of Sun Records. He introduced himself initially as a gospel singer, but Phillips told him he couldn’t sell that kind of music. When Cash told him that he had a group, Phillips asked him to bring them to the studio. Red Kernodle was so nervous he could hardly play and after three numbers he packed up and left, reducing the group to a trio. Phillips heard something intriguing in the group's very basic rhythm (boom-chick-a-boom). Soon he realized that it was the only way they could play, limited musicians as they were. But it was spontaneous and different and, most of all, Sam was struck by Cash’s voice, a deep bass-baritone.
Cash’s first Sun single, “Cry, Cry, Cry”/“Hey Porter”, was released on June 21, 1955, credited to "Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two". Cash had been christened simply J.R. and changed his name to John R. Cash when he joined the Air Force, where initials were not permitted as a first name. It was Sam Phillips who coined Johnny, thinking it sounded better than John. “Cry, Cry, Cry” spent one week on the national country charts (at # 14), but all subsequent Sun singles would go Top 10 until Cash left the label in mid-1958. Moreover, all were double-sided hits. After the classic “Folsom Prison Blues” (# 4) came “I Walk the Line”, Johnny's first country number one, his first record to cross over to the pop charts (# 17, autumn 1956) and his first million seller. Other # 1 hits were “There You Go” (early 1957), “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen” (for 10 weeks, also # 14 pop, 1958) and “Guess Things Happen That Way” (8 weeks, 1958, # 11 pop). In October 1957, “Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar” became the first LP release on Sun. The later Sun recordings were produced by Jack Clement, who added a vocal chorus and a piano to Cash’s sparse sound. On Dcember 4, 1956, Cash was part of the Million Dollar Quartet (with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) in the Sun studio, although he left before the famous jam session began.
A difference of opinion with Sam Phillips over royalties and a gospel album resulted in Cash leaving Sun for Columbia in July 1958. Columbia producer Don Law recorded him with the same instrumentation that Phillips used at Sun, but somehow Cash never sounded quite as good again. His commercial success was undiminished, however. Number one country singles on Columbia included “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” (1959), “Ring Of Fire” (with trumpets, 1963), “Understand Your Man” (1964), a live version of “Folsom Prison Blues” (1968), “Daddy Sang Bass” (1969), “A Boy Named Sue” (1969, recorded live at San Quentin Prison, also his biggest pop hit, # 2), “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1970) and “One Piece At A Time” (1976, also his last pop hit, # 29). Don Law encouraged Cash to venture out in new directions (gospel, concept albums, folk music, songs of social conscience and protest). As a result, Cash extended the scope of country music and helped broaden its audience.
By the mid-1960s, Cash was suffering from addiction to pills, but with the help of June Carter, with whom he recorded several hit duets and who became his second wife in 1968, he was able to overcome his addiction. Johnny and June had a highly-rated TV show from 1969 until 1971. They were also activists for native Americans and prisoners. As the 1970s progressed, Cash’s hit records grew more infrequent. By the early 1980s his daughter Rosanne Cash was having more success as a recording artist than he was. But with his friends Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, Cash had a # 1 country hit with the title cut of the “Highwayman” album in 1985.
After Cash left Columbia in 1986, he recorded for Mercury until 1992, with minimal commercial success. Subsequently signed to Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label, he released the widely acclaimed “American Recordings” (1994), an album consisting of Cash’s voice accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. Very intense. It was followed by four more American Recordings albums, the last one (2006) a posthumous release. Johnny Cash continued to record until shortly before his death in 2003, of complications from diabetes.
His diversity is evidenced by his presence in four major music halls of fame : the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (inducted 1977), the Country Music Hall of Fame (1980, then the youngest member ever), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992) and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame (2013). Cash won many other awards, including 17 Grammies, 4 of which were awarded posthumously. The biopic “Walk the Line” (2005), starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon in the Oscar-winning role of June Carter, was a great commercial success.
Official website : http://www.johnnycash.com
Acknowledgements : Fred Danker, Colin Escott & Martin Hawkins, Peter Guralnick, Wikipedia.
Dik, May 2016
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