By James KeastJohnny Cash is cool. That can't be said for many sexagenarians who've made a living playing country and gospel tunes, but the Man In Black is undeniably so, a consensus that crosses genre and generation. He's a man of contradiction, who has battled the darkest demons, yet whose gaze, even from the gutter, has been directed to God. He has been a violent man, destroying countless hotel rooms and cars before rock stars even came to be. He's also a scholar of the Old West, and of the Gospels, a voracious reader and connoisseur of books and art. He has been a successful man ć at the peak of his career, in 1969, selling more records per month than the Beatles ć and yet from the mid-‘70s through the ‘80s, was largely forgotten. His body and his career have proved resistant, and both have come up off the mat when circumstances seemed hopeless.
J.R. Cash (his parents couldn't agree on a name at first, just initials) is born in 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, the fourth of five children to a cotton farming family. He first learns a host of traditional gospel songs from his mother, then radio becomes a huge influence. The entire Cash clan sings while they pick in the fields. In 1944, John's older brother Jack is killed in a farm accident at age 14. Jack was a man of God, destined for the priesthood and the greatest religious influence in Cash's young life. As a teenager, Cash's mother saves for singing lessons for her son; after three lessons, his teacher tells him to never take another lesson, and never change how he naturally sings.
John R. graduates from high school, and after working a couple of industrial jobs, enlists in the Air Force. While stationed in Germany, he buys his first guitar, drinks alcohol for the first time, and forms his first band, an acoustic group called the Barbarians that plays in small bars and honky-tonks.
Cash is discharged from the Air Force, and marries Vivian Liberto; they settle in Memphis, Tennessee, where he sells appliances door-to-door while trying to break into the music business. Meets and begins playing with Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, who form his long-time backing band, the Tennessee Two. Gets his first break on a Memphis radio station where the trio plays a weekly 15 minute spot, which lasts about two months.
Like Elvis before him, Johnny Cash camps out in front of Sam Phillips's legendary Sun Studios trying to catch a break. His real desire is to be a gospel singer, but Phillips won't bite, so Cash returns with "Hey Porter." Backed with "Cry Cry Cry," it becomes his first Sun single. In May, daughter (and future country star) Roseanne Cash is born. In December, releases "Folsom Prison Blues," which includes his meanest, and most famous line: "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die."
With a title inspired by Carl Perkins and a melody cribbed from a backwards-spooled tape recorder from his Air Force days, "I Walk the Line" becomes Cash's first number one hit, eventually selling over one million copies. In his 1997 autobiography, Cash, he writes that he's still angry that Sam Phillips never bought him a Cadillac to mark this occasion, a gift Phillips had given to both Elvis and Carl Perkins after they had huge, breakthrough success.
During a Carl Perkins recording session that features Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley happen by Sun Studios. The nearly 40 takes recorded that day become famous as the "Million Dollar Quartet." Reports vary from many sources about the different artists' participation, including Cash's own recollections ć in his 1975 autobiography, The Man In Black, he claims it occurred in 1955, not '56, and at different times claims to sing on different songs.
Achieves a lifelong dream when he performs on the Grand Ole Opry; eventually lands a regular spot on the Opry, which requires his return to Nashville every Saturday night for a performance.
On a late night drive through Florida on tour with singer Faron Young, Cash is offered amphetamines for the first time to help keep awake for the drive. From then on, the drug becomes an increasingly dominant presence in his life. In November, although his contract with Sun Records is not up, Cash signs a secret agreement with Columbia Records that will begin when his Sun contract expires the following year. It proves a remarkable deal for Columbia, who avoid a very expensive bidding war for his services the next summer, as his star continues to rise.
Sam Phillips, having already lost Presley, is bitter at the departure of Cash from Sun Records; the approximately 70 songs Cash recorded in three years are repackaged and released on more than 25 different albums in the ensuing years. Cash, for his part, feels he never got his financial due from Sun. His contract with Columbia Records allows him, for the first time, to pursue his lifelong interest in gospel music.