Legendary American singer-songwriter, guitarist, actor, and author Johnny Cash tragically died of complications from diabetes on September 12, 2003, aged 71. He was born February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. In March 1935, the family settled in Dyess, Arkansas. He started working in cotton fields at age five, singing along with his family while working. The family farm was flooded on at least two occasions, which later inspired him to write the song “Five Feet High and Rising”. His family’s economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties.
Cash’s early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. Taught guitar by his mother and a childhood friend, Cash began playing and writing songs at the age of twelve. When Cash was young, he had a high tenor voice, before becoming a bass-baritone. In high school, he sang on a local radio station; decades later he released an album of traditional gospel songs, called My Mother’s Hymn Book. He was also significantly influenced by traditional Irish music that he heard performed weekly by Dennis Day on the Jack Benny radio program.
Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force on July 7, 1950. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas, Cash was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile of the U.S. Air Force Security Service at Landsberg, Germany as a Morse Code operator intercepting Soviet Army transmissions. It was there he created his first band, named “The Landsberg Barbarians”. He was the first radio operator to pick up the news of the death of Joseph Stalin. He was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant on July 3, 1954, and returned to Texas. During his military service, he acquired a distinctive scar on his face as a result of surgery to remove a cyst.
On July 18, 1951, while in Air Force training, Cash met 17-year-old Vivian Liberto at a roller skating rink in San Antonio. Then Cash was deployed to Germany for a three-year tour. During that time, the couple exchanged hundreds of pages of love letters. On August 7, 1954, one month after his discharge, they were married at St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church in San Antonio. In 1954, Cash and and his wife Vivian 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. Perkins and Grant were known as the Tennessee Two. Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio, hoping to get a recording contract. After auditioning for Sam Phillips, singing mostly gospel songs, Phillips told him that he didn’t record gospel music any longer. BCash eventually won over the producer with new songs delivered in his early rockabilly style. In 1955, Cash made his first recordings at Sun, “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!”, which were released in late June and met with success on the country hit parade. As his career was taking off in the late 1950s, Cash started, drinking heavily and he became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates.
On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Sam Phillips while Carl Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks, with Jerry Lee Lewis backing him on piano. Cash was also in the studio and the four started an impromptu jam session. Phillips left the tapes running and the recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived and have since been released under the title Million Dollar Quartet.
Cash’s next record, “Folsom Prison Blues”, made the country Top 5, and “I Walk the Line” became No. 1 on the country charts and entered the pop charts Top 20. “Home of the Blues” followed, recorded in July 1957. That same year Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. Although he was Sun’s most consistently selling and prolific artist at that time, Cash felt constrained by his contract with the small label. Presley had already left Sun, and Phillips was focusing most of his attention and promotion on Lewis. In 1958, Cash signed with Columbia Records, where his single “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” became one of his biggest hits and his second album was a collection of gospel songs. However, Cash left behind a sufficient backlog of recordings with Sun that Phillips continued to release new singles and even albums featuring previously unreleased material until as late as 1964, placing Cash in the unusual position of having new releases out on two labels concurrently, with one 1960 release, a cover of “Oh Lonesome Me”.
Early in his career, he was given the nickname The Undertaker by fellow artists because of his habit of wearing black clothes – though he did so only because they were easier to keep looking clean on long tours. In the early 1960s, Cash toured with the Carter Family, which by this time regularly included Mother Maybelle’s daughters, Anita, June, and Helen. In the 1960s, he appeared on Pete Seeger’s short-lived television series Rainbow Quest. He also acted in and wrote and sang the opening theme for a 1961 film entitled Five Minutes to Live, later re-released as Door-to-door Maniac. In 1965, Cash and June Carter appeared on Pete Seeger’s TV show, Rainbow Quest, on which Cash explained his start as an activist for Native Americans. In 1964, he recorded the album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. Featuring stories of a multitude of native peoples, mostly of their violent oppression by white settlers: The Pima (“The Ballad of Ira Hayes”), Navajo (“Navajo”), Apache (“Apache Tears”), Lakota (“Big Foot”), Seneca (“As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”), and Cherokee (“Talking Leaves”). Cash wrote three of the songs himself and one with the help of Johnny Horton, but the majority of the protest songs were written by folk artist Peter La Farge (son of activist and Pulitzer prizewinner Oliver La Farge), whom Cash met in New York in the 1960s and admired for his activism.
Although primarily remembered as a country music icon, his genre-spanning songs and sound embraced rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel. This crossover appeal made him one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century and one of the best-selling music artists of all time, selling more than 90 million records worldwide and won Cash the rare honor of multiple inductions in the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.bCash was known for his deep, calm bass-baritone voice, the distinctive sound of his Tennessee Three backing band, a rebelliousness coupled with an increasingly somber and humble demeanor, free prison concerts, and a trademark look, which earned him the nickname “The Man in Black.” He traditionally began his concerts with the simple “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” followed by his signature “Folsom Prison Blues”.
Much of Cash’s music contained themes of sorrow, moral dilemmas and redemption especially in the later stages of his career. His signature songs include “I Walk the Line”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Ring of Fire”, “Get Rhythm”, and “Man in Black”. He also recorded humorous numbers like “One Piece at a Time” and “A Boy Named Sue”; a duet with his future wife, June Carter, called “Jackson” and railroad songs including “Hey, Porter”, “Orange Blossom Special” and “Rock Island Line”.
During the last stage of his career, Cash covered songs by several late 20th-century rock artists, notably “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails and “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode. Cash continued to record until shortly before his death. His final recordings were made on August 21, 2003, and consisted of “Like the 309,” which would appear on American V: A Hundred Highways in 2006, and the final song he completed, “Engine 143,”. Sadly In 1997, Cash was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Shy–Drager syndrome, a form of multiple system atrophy; the disease was originally misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s disease. The illness forced Cash to curtail his touring. He was hospitalized in 1998 with severe pneumonia, which damaged his lungs. Later, he released the albums American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002). The video for “Hurt,” a cover of the song by Nine Inch Nails, from American IV, received particular critical and popular acclaim. Sadly in 2003 While hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville. Cash sadly died less than four months after his wife. It was suggested that Johnny’s health worsened due to a broken heart over June’s death. He was buried next to his wife in Hendersonville Memory Gardens near his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.One of Cash’s final collaborations with producer Rick Rubin, American V: A Hundred Highways, was released posthumously on July 4, 2006. On February 23, 2010, three days before what would have been Cash’s 78th birthday, the Cash Family, Rick Rubin, and Lost Highway Records released his second posthumous record, titled American VI: Ain’t No Grave.