Johnny R. Cash, - Singer, Songwriter, Legend.
February 26, 1932 - September 12, 2003
'If the Grand Canyon could sing it would sound like Johnny Cash' - Charles Shaar Murray
With the passing of Johnny Cash, the music world has lost one of the most remarkable individuals to have ever played music. In a career that spanned five decades, audiences, critics and contemporaries alike honoured Cash. Perhaps more importantly, millions who found in his music a truth and integrity rarely found in rock or country music loved him. He was the first, and remains one of only two artists, to be enrolled in both the Rock and Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame.
Cash was born to poor farmers in Arkansas, though by 1935 they had relocated to the Mississippi Delta, where Cash's father found work with the Federal land reclamation Project, part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. This period of his life was recalled in his 1959 hit, 'Five Feet High and Rising', which told the story of the night Cash's family had to be evacuated from their house when the Mississippi flooded one night.
In the spring of 1955, Sam Philips signed Cash and the newly named Tennessee Two to his Sun Records label, where Cash joined a remarkable roster of artists that included, amongst others, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. His first single was 'Cry, Cry, Cry', which was released with 'Hey Porter' as a B-side and duly became Cash's first hit. In short order, 'Folsom Prison Blues', 'I Walk the Line', 'Home of the Blues' and 'Guess things Happen that Way' followed. He also had time to write 'You're My Baby' for Roy Orbison and 'Get Rhythm' for Elvis Presley.
In 1958, following a dispute with Phillips over royalty rates, Cash signed to Colombia Records, where his flow of hit singles continued. Perhaps most importantly in 1960 he played the first of many concerts at Folsom Prison itself, which would eventually result in the classic 1968 album, 'Live At Folsom Prison' and 1969's 'Live at San
By this time, Cash was playing up to 300 concerts a year, and in an effort to cope with this work rate, he turned to amphetamines, and throughout the 60's he battled with an addiction that resulted in him serving three days in an El Paso jail for smuggling amphetamines across the Mexican border. In 1967, his marriage to Vivian Liberto ended in
In 1968, however, he was married to June Carter, who had co-written one of Cash's biggest hits 'Ring of Fire', and was herself a part of an astonishing musical dynasty, The Carter Family. June Carter guided Cash though to the end of his addiction, and, slowly but surely, Cash began to take on his persona as an American Icon. By 1971 he was able to write a tune that was to become a signature tine, 'The Man in Black';
'I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Living in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime.'
From many other artists, such sentiments might seem redundant, even laughable. Yet for Cash, it was undoubtedly genuine. He continued to be heavily involved in playing prisons and the 1970's saw him take on an increasing number of causes, such as the rights of Native Americans. It was this championing of the underdog that undoubtedly placed Cash in the hearts of his audience, and from that time onwards, Johnny Cash was The Man in Black.
As Cash continued to mature as an artist, generations of musicians queued to pay homage to him. Although he himself enjoyed a somewhat lower profile in the eighties than he had before, Cash was a sought after songwriter and collaborator, and musicians as diverse as Elvis Costello and U2 featured Cash prominently in their recordings. By his own admission, Cash had found that the excitement had gone out of his recording career in the early 70's.
Yet there was one more go round the block for this extraordinary artist. In 1994 heavy metal and hip hip producer Rick Rubin approached Cash to make a recording for his American Records label. The resulting album, titled simply 'American Recordings', stripped Cash's sound down to a basic guitar and voice feature. Behind a sleeve that featured an
iconic photo of the Man in Black, the album featured songs by Cash himself, as well as covers of songs by artists as diverse as Danzig, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Loudon Wainright III. The album was a huge critical and commercial success, and earnt Cash
his 7th Grammy, for best Folk Album.
The partnership between Cash and Rubin was to be reforged for albums in 1994, 1996 and 2002. The basic formula remained the same, and besides new Cash compositions, songs by Beck, Soundgarden, Tom Petty, Neil Diamond, U2, Nick Cave, Nine Inch Nails, Sting, Depeche Mode and the Eagles were given the distinctive Cash treatment in a series of albums that compare favourably with those produced by any artist over the same period. Each in turn garnered a Grammy, and in 1999 Cash was given a Grammy for lifetime achievement.
Cash spent the last years of his life battling against a very rare degenerative disease, and certainly his voice on the final album of his life was not as strong as in previous years, yet his choice of material remained immaculate.
Tragically, June Carter died in June 2003, and her death clearly robbed Cash of a much loved lifetime companion and friend. He struggled with illness throughout the next few months and died in hospital of a diabetes related illness.
At the time of his death, Cash was recording a tribute album to his beloved June, and was recording up to two songs a day according to some sources. Rick Rubin is hopeful that he will be able to put together an album of material from the tapes in existence.
Johnny Cash brought honesty, integrity and a generosity of spirit to his music, which enabled him to cross barriers of genre and generation. His themes were universal to the human experience – death, love, faith, all of which were sung with voice that was unique, and with a trademark earthy humour. He is perhaps best epitomised by a comment he made to an
interviewer who enquired if there was a likelihood of finding a cure to his illness;
'I don't think so. But that's ok, there's no cure for life,