Johnny Cash is the only person ever to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. He has truly not only crossed musical borders, but refused to be categorized into any one genre of music. From the very first, Johnny Cash has been an original. As a matter of fact, his first and only voice teacher told him not to change a thing in his way of singing, that he was a song stylist and to 'do it his way'. And Johnny Cash has done just that.
Cash's first big break came when Sam Phillips of Sun Records agreed to listen to his songs. It didn't come easy however. Cash had tried to arrange a interview with Phillips many times and had been turned away. Finally Cash found out what time Phillips came to work and sat on the steps of the Sun Record's office and waited for him. Phillips invited Cash in, liked what he heard and invited him back the next day to play more. What Cash really wanted to do was record Gospel songs, but Phillips had other plans. This was in 1954. Johnny Cash's first song to hit the charts was Cry, Cry, Cry, and his first song to hit #1 was I Walk the Line.
By 1957 Johnny Cash had many hit songs and was performing regularly at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. During that time he met June Carter of the Carter Family backstage at the Opry and immediately fell in love with her. At their first meeting in 1956 he says he got down on his knees and told her he was going to marry her someday. The two played together and toured together, falling in love, but both were still married to other people. June Carter wrote the song Ring of Fire for Johnny at that time, about their intense and painful feelings for one another.
During the early 1960s, Cash's career continued to grow, as did his addiction to amphetamines. His life was spinning out of control and he was even banned from the Grand Ole Opry after he kicked out some stage lights in a fit of rage. Cash was touring about 300 nights a year, and needed the drugs to keep up with his hectic schedule. His marriage to his first wife, Vivien Liberto ended in divorce. Johnny ended his addiction however, with the help of his singing partner June Carter, who he married in 1968.
The Johnny Cash Show debuted in 1969 on ABC and was a huge hit. Even today people recognize the opening line of Hello, I'm Johnny Cash, which he opened every show with. The show featured a huge variety of singers and performers including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, Merle Haggard and the poet Shel Silverstein who was the author of the poem A Boy Named Sue which Cash later recorded and turned into a hit. Johnny also used the show as a place to express his political views, of which Native American Rights, prison reform, and his opposition of the Vietnam War were foremost.
Prison reform has been an important cause in Johnny Cash's life ever since he began playing concerts inside prisons in the late 1950s. His first prison concert was at San Quentin in 1958, and his later friend and musical partner Merle Haggard was sitting in the front row. Despite what most people believe, Johnny Cash has never been locked up in prison or even accused of a felony. The worst misdemeanor he was convicted of was setting a forest fire, for which he was fined 85,000. He did spend a few single nights in jail in the early 1960's as a result of his wild lifestyle at the time, however. His association with prisons and prisoners came about because of the songs he wrote including Folsom Prison Blues.
In 1983 Cash was attacked by an ostrich and recieved several broken ribs and other injuries. This resulted in him becoming re-addicted to pain medication, and eventually going to the Betty Ford Center to overcome the addiction. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during the 1980's however, an event that he calls the "greatest honor" of his life. His induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came in 1992.
Cash was diagnosed with Shy-Drager Syndrome, a condition similar to Parkinson's Disease in 1996 and subsequently suffered several serious bouts with pnuemonia. Later this was determined to be a misdiagnosis caused by symptoms resulting from the pnuemonia, untreated diabetes, and nerve damage. The illness kept Cash fairly inactive however until around 1999 when he began re-recording music again, collaborating with Rick Rubin, better known as a rap and rock producer, to cut the acclaimed "American" series of albums. When Rubin was asked why he would take on a singer known mainly for country music, he replied "I don't see him as a country act. I would say he embodies rock 'n' roll. He's an outlaw figure, and that is the essence of what rock 'n' roll is."
Endnote: Johnny Cash died yesterday (September 11, 2003) of complications of diabetes. He follows his beloved wife June Carter Cash, who died May 16, 2003.