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Johnny Cash

J. R. Cash (February 26, 1932 - September 12, 2003) was an American country music singer and songwriter. He was sometimes known as John R., and Johnny later in life--and also simply as the man in black.

He was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, the son of a poor farmer. His family soon moved into a farm in Dyess, Arkansas, provided cheaply by the government as part of the New Deal, and by age five he was working in the cotton fields. He began playing guitar and writing songs as a young boy and in high school sang on a local radio station.

After serving in the United States Air Force, Cash moved to Memphis, Tennessee where he sold appliances and studied to be a radio announcer. At night, he played in a trio and one day approached Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Because he had been singing mainly gospel tunes, Phillips said "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell. He did and in 1955 his first recording at Sun, Cry Cry Cry", was released, meeting with reasonable success on the country hit parade.

His next record, Folsom Prison Blues, made the country Top 5, and I Walk the Line was number one on the country charts, making it into the pop charts Top 20. In 1957, Johnny Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. The following year he left Sun to sign a lucrative offer with Columbia Records where his single, Don't Take Your Guns to Town, would become one of his biggest hits.

Within a few years, Johnny Cash had to battle drug problems that severely affected his career and on several occasions he wound up spending a night in jail, charged with a variety of offenses. Despite this, his record, Ring of Fire, went to number one on the country charts and broke the Top 20 on the pop charts.

Although Cash carefully cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he actually spent very little time behind bars. While on tour in 1965, he was arrested by the narcotics squad in El Paso, Texas for attempting to smuggle amphetamines into the country stashed inside his guitar case, but he only received a suspended sentence. He was also arrested the next year for trespassing late at night onto private property to pick flowers. More notably, he voluntarily entered California's Folsom State Prison in 1968 to perform 19 songs in a classic live concert that was recorded in front of approximately 2,000 convicted felons.

The mid 1960s saw Cash release a number of concept records, including Ballads Of The True West (1965) -- an experimental double record mixing authentic frontier songs with Cash's spoken narration, let down by the modern arrangements -- and Bitter Tears (1964), with songs highlighting the plight of the native Americans. However, his drug addiction deepened, and his destructive behaviour led to a divorce and numerous problems performing.

For his album, Bitter Tears Cash recorded the Peter LaFarge song called The Ballad of Ira Hayes. The song told the true saga of Hayes, a Pima Indian who was who was one of the Marine heroes of the epic WWII battle at Iwo Jima. Despite his heroism, Hayes returned home to crushing despair and to the racism that never disappeared: "Ira Hayes returned a hero, celebrated throughout the land/ He was wined and speeched and honoured, everybody shook his hand/ But He was just a Pima Indian, no water, no home, no chance/ At home nobody cared what Ira had done, and when do the Indians dance? Though The Ballad of Ira Hayes" was a No. 3 country single, many stations refused to play it, deeming it too risky. Cash took out a full-page ad in Billboard denouncing country radio for its reluctance. 'Ballad of Ira Hayes' is strong medicine, he wrote. "So is Rochester -- Harlem -- Birmingham and Vietnam."

The personal problems continued until he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, purchasing a home at Old Hickory Lake next door to his friend Roy Orbison, whose home burned down in 1968, claiming the lives of his two young sons. Deeply affected by Orbison's tragedy, Cash was trying to make changes in his life, including his marriage to June Carter (a member of the Carter Family), who had co-written Ring of Fire, that year.

With Carter's help, and influenced by a religious conversion experienced during a failed suicide attempt, he overcame his addictions and became a born-again Christian. Soon, Johnny Cash released his most successful album ever titled Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. The following year, he released another prison album titled, Johnny Cash at San Quentin that included Shel Silverstein's A Boy Named Sue. Released as a single, A Boy Named Sue went to number one on the country charts and to number three on the US Top Ten pop charts.

Immensely popular, and an imposing tall figure, he began performing dressed all in black, wearing a long black knee-length coat. Dubbed The Man in Black. This stemmed from the fact that most of the major acts in his day wore rhinestones and cowboy boots, and he wanted to do express something different. In 1971, Johnny wrote the song Man in Black to help explain his dress code: "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,/ Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,/ I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,/ But is there because he's a victim of the times."

In 1969 he had his own television show on the ABC network and sang with Bob Dylan on Dylan's country-rock album, Nashville Skyline.

In the mid-1970s

Note: This profile was written in or before 2003.

Johnny Cash Facts

Birth NameJohn Ray Cash
BirthdayFebruary 26, 1932
BirthplaceKingsland, Arkansas, USA
Date of deathSeptember 12, 2003 (age 71)
Height6' 2" (1m88)  How tall is Johnny Cash compared to you?

Selected Filmography

Murder in Coweta County
Pride Of Jesse Hallum
The Gospel Road One Man's Journey On The Road To The Truth
Sesame Street: Kids' Favorite Country Songs
Uptown Saturday Night
The Hunted
My Father and the Man in Black
Man on the Moon
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