"Hello. I'm Johnny Cash." From country singer to rock n roll legend, Johnny Cash traversed genres and broke boundaries to become a truly iconic musician. We remember the highs and lows of the life of the man in black.
The kid from Arkansas
One of seven children, Johnny Cash was christened J.R—initials that stood for nothing, as his parents couldn't think of a name.
The Cash family lived in Dyess, Arkansas, for most of Johnny's infant life, and he was put to work from a young age, picking cotton in the local fields from the age of five and singing songs with his family as he did so.
The Cash clan were not wealthy, and the troubles the family experienced trying to make a living during the Great Depression had a huge influence on Johnny's songwriting. He wrote the song Five Feet High and Rising about the many times the family farm flooded during those years. His father was particularly distant, and Johnny remembered a time when he was just five, that his father shot his beloved dog, for eating scraps from the table intended for the pigs.
Johnny loved films about Frankenstein's monster because he was "made up of bad parts but trying to do good"
Johnny was fascinated by films as a child and particularly loved watching early Frankenstein movies. He said he could empathise with the monster because he was "made up of bad parts but trying to do good", a sentiment that would later ring true in his lyricism.
As a boy, Johnny was particularly close to his older brother Jack. In the spring of 1944, Jack was working at a mill when he was pulled into the saw used for cutting trees or wood. He suffered from his injuries for a full week before his death.
As he lay dying, Jack spoke of being able to see angels and heaven, and Johnny often spoke about looking forward to meeting his favourite brother again when he too passed on.
Image via Blues and Country
In the summer of 1950, Johnny Cash enrolled in the US Air Force. When he entered the force, he wasn't allowed to sign up with the name 'J.R' as it consisted only of initials, and so he changed his name to 'John R Cash'. He would later change it again, this time to 'Johnny Cash', when he signed with Sun Records.
Johnny's stint with the Air Force was a successful one. He was stationed in Germany, working to intercept morse code from the Soviet Army. As a radio operator during this time, he was the first person to recieve the news of Joseph Stalin's death.
It was while working in Germany that Johnny bought his first guitar. It cost him just 20 Deutschmarks (then about five US dollars).
During his Air Force training Johnny, then 19, met his future wife Vivian Liberto at a roller disco in San Antonio.
The young lovers knew each other for just three weeks before he was deployed to Germany for three years, and in that time they exchanged countless love letters (all penned in green ink), eventually marrying just one month after his discharge in 1954.
Indeed, when Vivian came to pen her memoirs years later, her editor remembers combing through close to 10,000 pages of love letters from Johnny.
Together the couple had four daughters, Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara. Rosanne had a particularly unusual namesake: she was named after Johnny's nicknames for her mother's breasts, Rose and Anne.
Sadly, the marriage wasn't to last and the couple divorced in 1966. Vivian filed the papers, claiming that Johnny's various addictions, including drugs, alcohol and extramarital affairs, combined with his long absences due to touring, were the reason the marriage fell apart. The song Walk the Line was written for Vivian, a response to her asking if he was ever tempted by the flocks of adoring women who attended his early shows.
Vivian's longtime friend, Alice Smith, remembers her lamenting, "If I only could have travelled with him instead of being here raising four kids, things would have been different."
The music man
Johnny was first introduced to his future bandmates Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant (then known as the Tennesse Two) by his brother Roy, but he had loved singing country and gospel music since he was a small boy.
In 1954, Johnny Cash and the Tennesse Two decided to cut their losses and audition their gospel music for Sam Phillips at the Sun Records studio. He quickly told them that he couldn't make money from gospel music anymore. It was Johnny's own songs, written in a raw rockabilly style, with lyrics that admitted to a less-than-holy lifestyle that eventually won the producer over.
A year later, he recorded his first song, Cry, Cry Cry at Sun Records and was met with almost instant acclaim. His next record, Folsom Prison Blues charted at number 5, and the iconic I Walk the Line became his first number 1 in the country charts shortly afterwards.
It was around this time that Johnny first earned his nickname, 'The Undertaker', due to his penchant for wearing all black. He even wrote a song, Man in Black, about his sartorial choices, claiming he dressed that way, "just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back". He later admitted that he really only did so because black clothes were easier to keep clean on tour.
Johnny was often noted for this sense of humour, particularly for impressions of his fellow performers. This one of a little-known singer named Elvis Presley is particularly good.
The singer was also keen to evade the censorship of his label, especially when they tried to stop him from recording religious matieral.
In one particularly dramatic rebellion, he recorded and released an intentionally awful album entitled Chicken in Black. It featured a song about his brain being transplanted into the body of a chicken. Listen here:
5. Cash and Carter
Johnny Cash first met country singer June Carter backstage at the Grand Ole Opry show in 1956. The pair quickly became inseparable, despite both already being married.
Speaking years later, Johnny claimed that he knew the very moment that he saw her that they were meant to be together, saying "she stole my heart right away. That night I told her, 'I'm going to marry you someday'".
Johnny pursued June for years, throughout his own marriage and three of hers, proposing to her on several occasions, and each time being turned down. They toured and performed together frequently, often to the horror of their current partners.
In 1968, during one particular duet in London, Ontario, 13 years after they first met, Johnny proposed once again. In front of the crowd of some 7,000 people, June finally said yes. The couple married that same year.
Speaking about Johnny years later, June said, "He's just like my father. My father just adored my mother and let her do whatever she wanted. John's like that. He's a very rare man, a very good man, and I've had a good life with him."
One of Johnny's many love letters to June (below) was recently voted the most romantic of all time.
During his service in the US Air Force, Johnny Cash and his unit watched a film entitled Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. Inspired, the young musician decided to pen a song about life behind Folsom's bars, a song he later named Folsom Prison Blues.
Unsurprisingly, the song became hugely popular with inmates, both of Folsom Prison and penitentiaries around the world. Cash began recieving fan mail from hundreds of prisoners, telling him how much his song had meant to them. In return, he began performing at prisons, starting with Huntsville State Prison in 1957.
At one show (San Quentin in 1969), a producer remembers a moment when Johnny realised just how much influence he had over the inmates. As he sang the changed lyric, "San Quentin I hate every inch of you", "He realised that all he had to say was, 'Let's go!' and there would have been a full-scale riot."
Johnny had the idea to record a live album at a prison in 1967 and Folsom was the first to respond to his request. The show was recorded twice, over two consecutive days, and included duets with June Carter.
The album was released to rave reviews, and the iconic performance passed into something of music legend in the years that followed. The performance was immortalised in the Oscar winning 2005 biopic of Johnny Cash's life, I Walk the Line.
It was during these performances at Folsom Prison that Johnny first debuted his famous opening line, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash".
Despite having demonised them in his early letters to Vivian, Johnny began to drink excessively and experiment with amphetamines and barbiturates in the late 1950s as a way to cope with his demanding schdule of 300 concerts a year. He used sedatives recreationally to cope with the stress and then relied on uppers to stay awake for his live performances.
Johnny's addictions soon escalated and led to his arrest in 1965, when he was caught smuggling amphetamines and sedatives across the Mexican border inside his guitar case. Because they were technically prescription medications, he only recieved a suspended sentence.
"I was taking the pills for awhile, and then the pills started taking me."
As the 60s rolled around, his addiction spiralled even further out of control, leading to his divorce from first wife Vivian and several cancelled performances. He spent a night in jail after being caught in possession of a bag of pills after a car crash in Georgia. Reflecting on that incident in Terry Gross's book, All I Did Was Ask, Cash said, "I was taking the pills for awhile, and then the pills started taking me."
After a traumatic psychedelic incident alone in a cave that saw him attempt suicide, June Carter and her mother moved into Johnny's mansion to help him conquer his addiction. June would devote much of her later life to trying to curb Johnny's addictions, frequently finding his drug stash and flushing it down the toilet.
The spiritual ephiphany he claimed to have drawn from this incident kept him clean until 1977, when he once again had to check into rehab. Cash would struggle with drug addiction for the rest of his life.
The father in black
Despite long absences from their lives due to his touring commitments, Johnny's children generally speak highly of their father as an affectionate man who always did his best to ensure their happiness.
Cindy Cash, one of his daughters from his first marriage, remembered many happy Christmases with her father. He would lead them into the living room to open their presents, insisting that the girls walk in by order of age. "Once", she recalls, "Dad had taken off his shoes, put them in the fireplace ashes, and made footprints leading out the door, just so we'd believe there was a Santa Claus."
In her memoirs, Vivian said that even after their marriage ended, Johnny financially supported her and their children, and would return to visit frequently, taking particular pride in their graduations.
Johnny only had one child with June, John Carter Cash, who is now a singer and songwriter, a career he shares with his older half-sister Roseanne.
In 1997, Johnny was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Shy–Drager syndrome. Despite being told he had just 18 months to live, he continued working, recording the albums American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around.
Perhaps the most famous recording of his later life was his cover version of the Nine Inch Nails song, Hurt, which met with great popular and critical acclaim.
June Carter passed away in 2003 leaving Johnny heartbroken. He died just four months after her, saying that music was the only point to his being now that she was gone. The pair were buried side by side near their home, in Hendersonville Memory Gardens, Tennessee.
June had told him to keep working after she died, so Johnny did, recording an incredible 60 songs in the last four months of his life. Before his final public performance, at the Carter Family Fold, in 2003, he said:
"The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has."
*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.
Loading up next...