To millions of fans, Johnny Cash is “the Man in Black,” a country-music legend who sings in an authoritative baritone about the travails of working men and the downtrodden in this country. Lesser known is the fact that Johnny Cash was present at the birth of rock and roll by virtue of being one of the earliest signees to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records back in 1955. Cash was part of an elite club of rock and roll pioneers at Sun that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. The four were collectively referred to as “the Million Dollar Quartet” after an impromptu gathering and jam session at the Sun recording studio on December 4, 1956. What Cash and his group, the Tennessee Two, brought to the “Sun Sound” was a spartan mix of guitar, standup bass and vocals that served as an early example of rockabilly. Cash recorded a string of rockabilly hits for Sun that included “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” The latter was first of more than a dozen Number One country hits for Cash and also marked his first appearance on the national pop singles charts.
Straddling the country, folk and rockabilly idioms, Johnny Cash has crafted more than 400 plainspoken story-songs that describe and address the lives of coal miners, sharecroppers, Native Americans, prisoners, cowboys, renegades and family men. Cash came by his common touch honestly, having been born in Kingsland, Arkansas, during the Great Depression on February 26, 1932. At age three, he moved with his family to Dyess, Arkansas, where he worked the cotton fields. Cash’s roaming days included laboring at an auto plant in Michigan, serving in the Air Force in Germany and working as an appliance salesman in Memphis. Cash became a full-time musician after his two-sided hit—“So Doggone Lonesome"/"Folsom Prison Blues”—shot to Number Four on the Billboard country chart in 1956. From Sun, he jumped to Columbia Records in 1958, where he recorded such favorites as “Ring of Fire,” “Understand Your Man,” “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” and “Tennessee Flat-Top Box.” But Cash never forgot his roots, nor did he leave hard times behind. A prototype for the black-clad rebel rocker, Cash cultivated a serious drug problem in the Sixties, which ended when he met his second wife, June Carter, whom he married in 1968.
Some of Cash’s best work includes live albums recorded, quite literally, for captive audiences at Folsom and San Quentin prisons. Johnny Cash at San Quentin included the 1969 hit “A Boy Named Sue,” which went to Number Two. In 1969, Cash cut a duet with Bob Dylan for the latter’s Nashville Skyline, and Dylan returned the favor by appearing on The Johnny Cash Show, a successful TV variety hour that premiered in 1969. All the while, the rugged simplicity and uncut honesty of Cash’s approach was steadily seeping into rock and roll by way of the burgeoning country-rock scene.
Cash remained a stalwart figure and working musician through the Nineties. His career received a shot in the arm in the mid-Nineties, when he released what many consider to be one of his finest albums, a stark study for guitar and voice entitled American Recordings. In 1999, Cash received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Johnny Cash died of complications from diabetes on September 12, 2003. Two posthumously released albums, both produced by Rick Rubin, received critical acclaim: 2006’s American V: A Hundred Highways and 2010’s American VI: Ain’t No Grave. A feature-film biopic, Walk the Line, came out in 2005, and the following year a jukebox musical called Ring of Fire opened on Broadway.