"I love to go to the studio and stay there 10 or 12 hours a day. I love it. What is it? I don't know. It's life."

Happy Birthday, Johnny Cash!

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Johnny Cash (26th February, 1932 - 12th September, 2003) was an American singer and songwriter. Cash was one of the most influential musicians of his time, playing music in the genres of rockabilly, rock and roll, blues, folk and gospel and especially country. Cash felt much sympathy for prisoners and played free concerts in many prisons, some of which were recorded as live albums. Cash was a devout Christian and explored his faith through several forms. Cash also experienced some brief run-ins with the law and struggled with drug addiction for much of his life. Cash was the youngest living inductee into the historical Country Music Hall of Fame and earned many awards for his music, including over fifteen Grammys. Cash died in 2003 after a long life of achievements and serves as a strong influential force in American music to this day.

JohnnyCash3J. R. Cash was born in the February of 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. One of seven children, Cash was just named "J. R." and would not be called Johnny until that became his stage name later in life. Cash was very close to his older brother Jack and was traumatized when Jack died in a farming accident in 1944. Cash himself worked on the cotton fields in Dyess, Arkansas to help with his family's financial troubles during The Great Depression. The family would sing songs while they worked on the farm and Cash loved to join in. Cash's mother taught him to play the guitar and he began writing songs at a very young age. His home was dominated by the sounds of gospel music and radio. He was also inspired by the Irish music he heard on Jack Benny's program. Cash himself was of Scottish and English ancestry.

"I knew I wanted to sing when I was a very small boy. When I was probably 4 years old. My mother played a guitar and I would sit with her and she would sing and I learned to sing along with her."

 

Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1950, legally naming himself John R. Cash as the army would not accept initials. Cash was trained in San Antonio, Texas where he met his girlfriend Vivien Liberto at an ice skating rink. The two exchanged many love letters and stayed in contact when Cash was sent to Lansberg, Germany to act as a Morse code operator. While in Europe, he formed his first band The Landsberg Barbarians, and returned to Texas after an honorable discharge in 1954. A month after his return, he married Vivien Liberto. The two would have four children together but the marriage would not last.

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JohnnyCash4In 1954 Cash moved to Memphis, Tennessee with his wife. He studied to be a radio announcer while playing music with Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, also known as the "Tennessee Two." Cash eventually gathered up the courage to ask Sun Records for a contract. He was denied based on his gospel songs but picked up later when he began playing songs of the rockabilly style. His first two songs with Sun were Hey Porter and Cry! Cry! Cry! Both were met with success. In 1956, Cash was in the studio while Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were recording together. Elvis Presley dropped in to visit founder Sam Phillips and the four musicians started improvising together. The whole session was recorded and released as aptly-named album called Million Dollar Quartet (1956).

Ghost Riders in the Sky, Acoustic

Also in the late 1950s, Cash began to visit prisons out of a compassion he felt for those within. He recorded the song Folsom Prison Blues in 1955 and his performances at at Folsom and San Quentin were made into highly successful live albums. Cash would also perform at a prison in Sweden in the early 1970s. During this decade, Cash began to delve into drugs, beginning with amphetamines and barbiturates. He would use them to stay awake late while touring but began showing signs of addiction. Though the drugs did not hinder his creativity, they did cause stress in his marriage. Vivien Liberto couldn't handle Cash's frequent touring and drug abuse and filed for divorce in 1966.

"Success is having to worry about every damn thing in the world, except money."

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A Boy Named Sue, Live

Cash's singles Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk The Line and Home of the Blues all became top twenty hits. The Sun Records empire was already dwindling after Presley's move, and they were paying Cash a less than standard royalty for his music. He transferred to Columbia Records in 1958 and released his next big success Don't Take Your Guns To Town. During his tours in the late 1950s, Cash met fellow country singer June Carter. The two were enamored with each other and stayed close for the next thirteen years. Cash toured with the Carter family and the pair would eventually collaborate on award-winning duets and get married in 1968.

Music Video for Ring of Fire

JohnnyCash6One of Johnny Cash's most remembered songs Ring of Fire was recorded in 1963 with lyrics written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore. This country-folk crossover single would stay on the charts for seven weeks and was Cash's biggest success. But over the next ten years Cash's drug problems got worse. He accidentally burned down part of a National Forest in California when his truck caught on fire. The government sued him, eventually settling for $82,000 dollars. Cash spent several non-consecutive nights in various jails, often due to drug-related concerns and once for trespassing onto a private property to pick flowers. Though Cash never served a prison sentence, he identified with the outlaw image. After he was arrested for a car accident in Georgia and spent a long night in jail talking with the sheriff, he felt a the need to change his lifestyle. He was grateful for the sheriff's words of encouragement and warning, and returned to play a charity concert for 12,000 people in the small town of LaFayette, Georgia.

 

Cash's second experience which made him determined to rehabilitate came in 1968, when he tried to commit suicide in Nickajack Cave, Tennessee. He spent the night heavily dosed and ready for death. Cash did not die that night. Instead, he left the cave after undergoing a spiritual epiphany where he felt God tug him back to life. Cave spent the next month dealing with his addiction with the help of June Carter and her family. She refused to marry him until he changed his ways and in the February of that year, accepted his on-stage proposal. Although Cash tried his hardest and spent many months sober, he would never fully break free from his vice.

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Louis Armstrong on The Johnny Cash Show

In 1969, Johnny Cash was given his own show, The Johnny Cash Show, on ABC. Over the next two years, he invited mainstream musicians such as Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, James Taylor, Ray Charles, Derek and the Dominos, and Bob Dylan on the show, as well as his close friends Carl Perkins and the Carter family. Cash idolized Bob Dylan and spent time with him in Woostock, New York where they were brief neighbors. They sang a duet together on Dylan's album Nashville Skyline.

Hurt, Nine Inch Nails Cover

By the 1970s, Cash was referred to as "The Man in Black" for wearing all black clothing during his performances. Cash would write lyrics about marijuana and about his dress code, refusing to hide any of his beliefs for networks or audiences. Cash's all black uniform contrasted the cowboy boots and rhinestone suits of many country singers of the time. Cash had been a huge supporter of the Vietnam war protests but wore black for all the poor, dying and hungry even after the war's end. Cash also demonstrated his support for Native Americans with his 1964 album Bitter Tears. Cash brought up the topic of prison reform while meeting with Richard Nixon in 1972 and was reportedly friends with many Presidents over the years.

Walk The Line, Live

Over the 1970s, Cash's popularity slowed down but he continued to be present on television. His autobiography Man in Black came out in 1975 and sold 1.3 million copies. He would release a second one, Cash: The Autobiography, in 1997. Cash's devotion to the Christian faith led him to produce a film entitled The Gospel Road with Billy Graham in 1973 and would also write the country chart topping soundtrack of the same name. Cash also wrote a novel about the conversion of Saul and recorded himself reading the New Testament in 1990.

"I am not a Christian artist, I am an artist who is a Christian."

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Cash parted ways with Columbia Records and instead signed with American Recordings. He created the 1994 album named American Recordings in his living room, and it went on to win a Grammy for best contemporary folk album. Cash performed at Glastonbury in 1994 and contributed to an AIDS benefit album. Cash became sick with a neurodegenerative disease in the late 1990s and wrote two albums, American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002). Both had a sad and sombre tone to them. After his wife June died in 2003, Cash was heartbroken. He would die four months later, his illness made worse by his loneliness and love for June.

"Of emotions, of love, of breakup, of love and hate and death and dying, mama, apple pie, and the whole thing. It covers a lot of territory, country music does."

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Walk The Line Trailer

Johnny Cash is remembered today as the powerfully influential Country singer that he was. In his early days, we was a pioneer of the rockabilly and rock and roll sounds, but his ability to grow and crossover into folk and blues solidified him as an icon of musical ability. Many compilations and albums were released after his death, and film Walk The Line was an Oscar winning biopic of Johnny Cash's life. The height of his influence is evident by his impressive induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Perhaps the most beautiful testament to his legacy was the flower picking festival held in Starkville, Mississippi - a demonstration of his rebellious attitudes, his mischevious ways and the legendary persona that inspired so many fans. 

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Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Wednesday, 26 February 2014
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