country music singer and songwriter. He was sometimes
known as John R., and "Johnny" later in life--and also
simply as "the man in black."
Johnny Cash was born in
Kingsland, Arkansas, the son of a poor farmer. Johnny
Cash's family soon moved into a farm in
Dyess, Arkansas—provided cheaply by the government as
part of the
New Deal—and by age five he was working in the cotton
fields. He began playing guitar and writing songs as a young
boy and in high school sang on a local radio station.
After serving in the
United States Air Force, Cash moved to
Memphis, Tennessee where he sold appliances and studied
to be a radio announcer. At night, he played in a trio and
one day approached
Sam Phillips at
Sun Records. Because he had been singing mainly gospel
tunes, Phillips said "go home and sin, then come back
with a song I can sell." He did and in
1955 his first recording at Sun, "Cry Cry Cry", was
released, meeting with reasonable success on the country
His 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. The following year he 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
Within a few years, Johnny Cash had to battle drug
problems that severely affected his career and on several
occasions he wound up spending a night in jail, charged with
a variety of offenses. Despite this, his record, "Ring of
Fire," went to number one on the country charts and broke
the Top 20 on the pop charts.
Although Cash carefully cultivated a romantic outlaw
image, he actually spent very little time behind bars. While
on tour in
1965, he was arrested by the narcotics squad in
El Paso, Texas for attempting to smuggle amphetamines
into the country stashed inside his guitar case, but he only
received a suspended sentence. He was also arrested the next
year for trespassing late at night onto private property to
pick flowers. More notably, he voluntarily entered
Folsom State Prison in
1968 to perform 19 songs in a classic live concert that
was recorded in front of approximately 2,000 convicted
1960s saw Cash release a number of concept records,
including Ballads Of The True West (1965)
-- an experimental double record mixing authentic frontier
songs with Cash's spoken narration, let down by the modern
arrangements -- and Bitter Tears (1964),
with songs highlighting the plight of the
native Americans. However, his drug addiction deepened,
and his destructive behaviour led to a divorce and numerous
For his album, Bitter Tears Cash recorded the
Peter LaFarge song called "The Ballad of Ira Hayes." The
song told the true saga of Hayes, a Pima Indian who was one
of the Marine heroes of the epic
WWII battle at
Iwo Jima. Despite his heroism, Hayes returned home to
crushing despair and to the racism that never disappeared:
"Ira Hayes returned a hero, celebrated throughout the land/
He was wined and speeched and honoured, everybody shook his
hand/ But He was just a Pima Indian, no water, no home, no
chance/ At home nobody cared what Ira had done, and when do
the Indians dance?" Though "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" was a
No. 3 country single, many stations refused to play it,
deeming it too risky. Cash took out a full-page ad in
Billboard denouncing country radio for its reluctance. "
'Ballad of Ira Hayes' is strong medicine," he wrote. "So is
Rochester -- Harlem -- Birmingham and Vietnam."
The personal problems continued until he moved to
Nashville, Tennessee, purchasing a home at Old Hickory
Lake next door to his friend
Roy Orbison, whose home burned down in
1968, claiming the lives of his two young sons. Deeply
affected by Orbison's tragedy, Cash was trying to make
changes in his life, including his marriage to
June Carter (a member of the
Carter Family), who had co-written "Ring of Fire", that
With Carter's help, and influenced by a religious
conversion experienced during a failed suicide attempt, he
overcame his addictions and became a
born-again Christian. Soon, Johnny Cash released his
most successful album ever titled "Johnny Cash at Folsom
Prison." The following year, he released another prison
album titled, "Johnny Cash at San Quentin" that
Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue." Released as a
Boy Named Sue" went to number one on the country charts
and to number three on the US Top Ten pop charts.
Immensely popular, and an imposing tall figure, he began
performing dressed all in black, wearing a long black
knee-length coat. Dubbed "The Man in Black." This
stemmed from the fact that most of the major acts in his day
wore rhinestones and cowboy boots, and he wanted to do
express something different. 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."
1969 he had his own television show on the
ABC network and sang with
Bob Dylan on Dylan's country-rock album, "Nashville
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
1980, Cash became the Country Music Hall of Fame's
youngest living inductee at 48, but during the
1980s his records failed to make a major impact on the
country charts, though he continued to tour successfully. In
1980s he recorded and toured with
Willie Nelson and
Kris Kristofferson as
the Highwaymen, making two hit albums.
As his relationship with record companies and the
Nashville establishment soured, he occasionally lapsed into
self-parody, notably on "Chicken In Black".
His career was rejuvenated in the
1990s. Unwanted by major labels he signed with
Rick Rubin's "American
Recordings" label, better known for
hard rock than country music. Under Rubin's supervision
he recorded the album American Recordings (1994)
in his front room, accompanied only by his guitar, which was
well received by critics, while his versions of songs by
more modern artists such as
heavy metal band
Tom Waits helped to bring him a new audience. Cash wrote
that his reception at the
Glastonbury Festival was one of the highlights of his
The formula was repeated on Unchained (1998)
which, in addition to many of Cash's own compositions,
contained songs by
Soundgarden ("Rusty Cage") and
Beck ("Rowboat"), as well as a guest appearance from
Flea, of the
Red Hot Chili Peppers.
1997 Cash was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative
Shy-Drager syndrome -- a diagnosis that was later
autonomic neuropathy, associated with
diabetes -- and his illness forced him to curtail his
touring, and he was hospitalised in
1998 with severe pneumonia, which damaged his lungs. The
album A Solitary Man (2000)
contained his response to the illness, typified by a version
Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down", as well as a powerful
Over the course of his career, Johnny Cash won 11
Grammy awards, one of which came for a
1985 album with
Carl Perkins and
Jerry Lee Lewis. Titled, "The Class Of '55,"
the record celebrated their debut days at
Sun Records. He received a
Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in
Johnny Cash was inducted into the
Country Music Hall of Fame in
1980 and the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in
1996 he was honored with a Kennedy Center Award and he
has a Star on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6320 Hollywood Blvd.
2002, Johnny Cash was honored at the Americana Awards show with a
"Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award".
Cash released American IV: The Man Comes Around
consisting partly of original material and partly of covers,
some quite surprising. The video for "Hurt", a song
Nine Inch Nails, was nominated in seven categories at
MTV Video Music Awards and won the award for Best
Johnny Cash's wife,
June Carter Cash, died due to complications following
heart valve surgery, on
2003 at the age of 71.
Johnny Cash died due to complications from diabetes,
which resulted in respiratory failure, while hospitalized at
Baptist Hospital in
The most popular Johnny Cash songs
- "Hey Porter"
- "Cry, Cry, Cry"
- "Folsom Prison Blues"
- "The Ballad of Ira Hayes"
- "I Walk the Line"
- "Don't Take Your Guns to Town"
- "Ring of Fire"
- "Orange Blossom Special"
- "Daddy Sang Bass"
- "A Boy Named Sue"