- JOHNNY CASH -
Rockabilly Legends Exclusive
This is a brief look at the life of the Legendary Johnny Cash, from the perspectives of Jerry Naylor and Kris Kristofferson.
JOHNNY CASH - Country singer, guitarist, and songwriter, was born in the remote rural settlement of Kingsland, Arkansas, on February 26, 1932. His birthplace was almost directly across the Mississippi from Lake County, Tennessee, where Carl Perkins was born six weeks later. Cash is the father of singer Rosanne Cash (1955), as well as the father-in-law of singer Rodney Crowell. Cash was born J.R. Cash, and it was only when he joined the U.S. Air Force that he was given the name Johnny. In the mid-1940s Cash started work in the fields, habitually listening to Smilin' Eddie Hill on WMPS, Memphis, during the midday break. Hill's "High Noon Roundup" show featured the cream of the local hillbilly talent. Unlike almost all of his later Sun colleagues, Johnny Cash grew up without the influence of black music: his parents had settled on a government colony in Dyess when he was three years old, from which blacks were specifically excluded. His parents kept the radio tuned to the hillbilly stations, and when Cash went into Dyess with a few nickels to put in the jukebox, it was Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb that he wanted to hear.
When Cash's voice broke, he realized that he owned something that might get him out of Dyess. He practised at every opportunity, singing in school and at home. Yet when he left tow, it was not to become a hillbilly singer but to work in the auto plants in Pontiac, Michigan. Like many others who took that route, Cash returned home, although he made his return somewhat sooner than most - after three weeks. Still determined to get out of Dyess, he joined the Air Force on July 7, 1950.
By his own account, Cash's 'four long, miserable years' in the Air Force were relieved only by playing music with fellow southerners. While stationed in Germany, they formed a group called the Landsberg Barbarians, and Johnny Cash started writing material for them - including the quintessential lament of the homesick southerner, "Hey! Porter", which was published as a poem in the servicemen's magazine Stars & Stripes.
Before leaving for overseas duty, Johnny Cash had gone roller-skating in San Antonio, Texas. On the rink, he crashed into Vivian Liberto, then seventeen years old and in her last year of high school. They dated during his last weeks in the States and wrote to each other constantly while he was overseas. John and Vivian decided to get married after he returned. Cash probably harboured the dream of being able to make money playing music, but up to that point his largest audience had been a gathering of a few dozen Italians who had listened to the Landsberg Barbarians on a drunken furlough in Venice.
On July 3, 1954, Johnny Cash left the U.S. Air Force. On August 7 he married Vivian Liberto, and they set up home on Tutwiler Avenue in Memphis. Cash's older brother Roy had found him a job selling appliances for the Home Equipment Company, but Cash was, by his own admission. Cash's trips into the black neighborhoods of Memphis gave him his first exposure to black music.
Trying to break into music any way he could, Cash auditioned for a job as a radio announcer at a station in Corinth, Mississippi, but was turned down because of lack of experience. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, Cash enroled at the Keegan School of Broadcast in Memphis. Attending on a part-time basis, he had completed half of the course by the time his first Sun record was released in 1954 with the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant).
A few days after getting out of the service, Johnny Cash visited his brother in Memphis. Roy Cash had forsaken a musical career and was working at the Hoehn Chevrolet dealership on Union Avenue. He introduced his younger brother to three mechanics who played together at home, at small benefit concerts, and on Sunday morning radio. Marshall Grant was twenty-six years old, sang tenor, and played guitar. Luther Monroe Perkins, also twenty-six, played guitar as well. A.W. "Red" Kernodle, ten years older than Perkins and Grant, played steel guitar.
For all his musical shortcomings, it was Luther Perkins who developed the guitar sound that complemented Cash's stark bariton. Perkins was born in Memphis on January 8, 1928. His father drove a taxi at the time, but soon returned to farming in Mississippi. The Perkins family, including Thomas Wayne (Perkins), who later scored a hit with "Tragedy", grew up in Sardis and Como.
"Finally, one day, we decided that we were ready for a shot at the record business", recalled Cash. "I had met Elvis Presley's guitarist, Scotty Moore, and I called him and asked him about the possibility of getting an audition with Sun". Moore probably told Cash that the best approach was simply go to the studio. It was an approach that had worked for Presley.
In an interview with Peter Guralnick, Cash described how he came to audition. "Sun Records was between my house and the radio announcing school. I just started going by there and every day "'d ask: Could I see Mr. Phillips. And they'd say, 'He's not in yet', or 'He's at a meeting'. So really it became a challenge to me just to get inside that studio. Finally, one day I was sitting on the stoop just as he came to work and I stood up and said, 'I'm John Cash and I want you to hear me play'. He said, 'Well, come on in'. I sang two or three hours for him. Everything I knew - Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Flatt and Scruggs... I even sang "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen".
"I had to fight and call and keep at it and push, push, push to even get into Sun Records. I don't feel like anyone discovered me because I had to fight so hard to get heard".
Phillips liked what he heard and invited Cash to return with his group. "When they came in", recalled Sam Phillips, "Cash apologized to me for not having a professional band but I said that he should let me hear what they could do and I would be able to tell whether they had a style I would be able to work with. At that first audition I was immediately impressed with John's unusual voice. I was also interested in Luther's guitar playing. He wasn't a wizard on the guitar. He played one string at a time and he wasn't super good - but he was different, and that was important".
"Their material was all religious at that time. Songs which Cash had composed. I liked them, but I told him that I would not at that time be able to merchandize him as a religious artist and that it would be well if he could secure some other material or write some other songs. I told him that I was real pleased with the sound we were getting from just the three instruments. If I'm mot mistaken, I think it was the third occasion in the studio that I actually commenced seriously to get Johnny Cash down on tape. He continued to be very apologetic about his band. However, I told him that I did not want to use any other instrumentation because of the unique style they had. They would practice a lot, but I told them not to be overly prepared because I was interested in spontaneity too".
"Sam Phillips had a vision", confirmed Cash in an interview with Bill Flanagan. "Nashville in 1955 was grinding out all these country records. If you took the voice off, all the tracks sounded the same to me... All the arrangements were calculated and predictable. It's kinda that way with my music - but (at least) it's my music. It's not done to try and sound like someone else in Nashville".
According to Marshall Grant, Red Kernodle came to the first session, froze and went back to his day job. According to Kernodle, he played the first session and then quit. "There was no money in it", he recalled with little apparent regret, "and there was getting to be too much staying up late at night and running around". It is probably that his halting attempts at playing the steel guitar can be heard on an early version of "Wide Open Road". If so, his disappearance was no great loss. Luther Perkins' oldest daughter, Linda, recalled that Kernodle's wife had threatened to leave if he concentrated upon music. He also held a better paying job than the other members of the group which he was unwilling to jeopardize. His disappearance was viewed with some relief by the others.
Needing some secular material in a hurry, Cash resuscitated "Hey! Porter" and previewed "Folsom Prison Blues" - a song based closely on a Gordon Jenkins tune, "Cresent City Blues", which formed a segment of a 1953 concept album called "Seven Dreams". Both the melody and finally dawned upon Jenkins after Cash re-recorded the song for his hugely successful prison album in 1968. Cash's earliest version of "Folsom Prison Blues" were delivered in a curiously high pitched voice, although those early takes show that Luther Perkins had already worked out his guitar solo that would later become a model of minimalist country picking. However, Sam Phillips did not want to couple "Folsom Prison
Blues" with "Hey! Porter" for the first record.
The essential elements of Cash's music were in place from the start. The stark, lonesome vocals were front and centre, with Luther doing little more than keeping time - even during his solo. Where most guitarists relish the oppertunity to solo, Luther seemed to dread it. The fear of failure - messing up an otherwise good take - seemed to haunt him every time he entered the studio during the early days.
For his part, Sam Phillips challenged the established precepts of recording balance, placing Cash's vocals more assertively in the mix than had ever been the case in country music. Phillips fattened the sounds of the vocals and the rhythm track with carefully timed slapback echo that gave a compelling syncopation to some of the faster numbers.
Cash recorded a number of hit records for Sun, including "I Walk The Line" (SUN 241), "Folsom Prison Blues" (SUN 232), and "Ballad Of A Teenage Queen" (SUN 283). His first major public appearance after singing with Sun Records was at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis on August 5, 1955. Elvis Presley was also on the bill. Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley toured together on the Jamboree tour from Abilene, Texas, to St. Louis, for two weeks in October 1955.
Johnny Cash became one of the participants in the famed Million-Dollar Quartet session. Years later he filed a lawsuit to try to prohibit the session's release on record. Cash left Sun Records in 1958 to record for Columbia Records. Merely two weeks after his last Sun session, Johnny Cash was in Nashville cutting his first Columbia session. Without Sam Phillips second-guessing the repertoire, cash was able to record a selection of religious or quasi-religious material. The first Columbia album, The Fabulous Johnny Cash, was released in time for the Disc Jockey Convention in the middle of November 1958.
On December 12, 1958 Johnny and Vivian Cash hosted a housewarming party in Encino, California. Cash's life - both inside and outside music - would acquire some new dimension as the '50s gave way to the '60s. At times he seemed to be the most focussed artist in country music, recording concept albums, and bringing a variety to his bare-bones sound that Sam Phillips never envisaged. At other times Cash seemed - like Hank Williams - to be heading ninety miles down a dead-end street.
At a live concert at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, in August 1969, Elvis Presley jokingly introduced himself by saying, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash", before singing "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk The Line".
The Sun recordings maximized the effective contrast between the hustling rhythm of the bass/acoustic guitar and the enigmatically ponderous vocals and sparse lead guitar. Phillips' achievement was to keep Cash's sound at its bare essentials and then fatten it up with the use of tape delay echo. Subsequent producers and engineers could never quite recapture Phillips' formula. At Columbia, Cash's little trio was placed in the cavernous Bradley's studio where the sound leaped around, giving a cavernous echo where Phillips had imparted a tightly focussed slapback. The difference was especially evident on Cash's vocals. The repertoire was as strong, the backings were still commendably simple - but the booming assertive presence was partially lost in the swampy echo.
The ultimate judgement on Cash - at Sun and Columbia - though, is that the whole represented much more than the sum of the parts. Cash's limited vocals, Luther Perkins' bare-bones picking and Marshall Grant's bass playing jelled magically to produce a unique and compelling blend, one of the most original, innovative and immediately recognisable sounds in country music.
For months after the death of his wife June Carter, Johnny Cash dies at the Shy-Drager Syndrom of the age of 71 in the Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee.
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