Born February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas. Johnny Cash was one of seven children born to Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash, he moved with his family at the age of three to Dyess, Arkansas, so that his father could benefit from the New Deal farming programs instituted by President Roosevelt. That's where Johnny Cash and his family lived in a five-room house and farmed 20 acres of cotton and other seasonal crops.
Johnny spent the most of the next 15 years working in the fields with his parents and siblings. "It wasn't always an easy life," Johnny remembered. At the age of 10 he was hauling water for a road gang and at 12 years old he moving large sacks of cotton.
Music was a huge part of the Cash family. It helped them through the hard times that they would go through, whether it be his mother singing or the music of people singing in the fields. Johnny showed interest in music at a very young age. The first time he picked up a guitar and started playing it he was 12 years old. Music took over his life from that moment on.
Johnny's mother, Carrie Rivers Cash, started to notice Johnny's love for music. She saved up enough money so that he could take singing lessons. After only three lessons Johnny's teacher told him to stop taking lessons, and to never change his singing style, or stray from his natural voice.
In his childhood, religion also had a huge impact. His brother Jack was commited to joining the priesthood, and his mother was also very committed to the church. But the death of Jack in 1944, at the age of 14, in a farming accident changed Johnny's life forever.
His life on the farm and his faith in god were never forgoten during John's career. There is evidence of this in some of his songs such as Pickin' Time and Five Feet High.
Johnny as a young child
The making of Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two
In 1950 Johnny moved to Pontiac Michigan, after graduating High School, finding work sweeping floors at and auto plant. After about a month of working at the auto plant Johnny went to work in the U.S Air Force. Johnny did his basic training in Texas,that's where he met Vivian Liberto, who he eventually married and had father four daughters with. For most of the four years that Johnny was in the Air Force, he was stationed in Landsberg (West Germany). He worked as a radio intercept officer, eavesdropping on Soviet radio traffic.
During the time that Johnny spent in Germany, he started to turn more of his attention towards music. He started a band with some of his Air Force friends, called the Landsberg Barbarians. They performed live shows, giving Johnny the chance to learn more guitar and gave him a shot at song writing. "We were terrible," he said later, "but that Lowenbrau beer will make you feel like you're great. We'd take our instruments to these honky-tonks and play until they threw us out or a fight started. I wrote Folsom Prison Blues in Germany in 1953."
In 1954 Johnny was discharged and decided to go to Memphis, Tennessee and settle down. That's where he married Vivian and got a job as an appliance salesman. Still interested in music, he joined a few mechanics (Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins) who worked with his brother Roy.
Johnny was the leader of the band that became known as Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two. Their style of music was a combination of blues and country-and-western music, which was called "rockabilly" by everyone in the record industry. In 1960 there was an addition to the band (drummer W.S. Holland) and the group name changed to Tennessee Three.
Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two
Their Big Brake
In July 1954 Johnny, Grant, and Perkins made an unscheduled visit to Sun Records to ask Sam Phillips for an audition. Earlier that year Sam Phillips had produced Elvis Presley's first album making him famous. The Sun Records owner gave in and Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two returned to Sun Records in late 1954. At the audition Sam Phillips liked their sound but not their gospel based song choices, which he thought would have a limited audience.
Sam Phillips was looking for new styles and asked the group to return with an original song instead. In 1955, Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two did just that, recording the song "Hey Porter," which Johnny wrote a week after their audition at Sun Records. Their song "Hey Porter" only had mediocre reviews, but Johnny's second release, "Cry, Cry, Cry" later that year hit at No. 14 on the Billboard charts. Other hits soon followed, including a pair of Top 10 singles; "So Doggone Lonesome" and "Folsom Prison Blues." But they didn't hit true fame until 1956, when Johnny wrote and released "I Walk The Line," which catapulted to No. 1 and sold 2 million copies.
The success and his association with Sam Phillips allowed Johnny to join an select group of artists that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis (they were known as "The Million Dollar Quartet"). In 1957 Johnny, now the father of two young daughters (Roseanne and Kathy) released his debut album, Johnny Cash with His Hot & Blue Guitar.
The Downward Spiral
In 1960 Johnny moved his family to Ventura, California. He had left Sun Records for Columbia Records in 1958. He became a superstar, having a non-stop tour schedule. He was on the road 300 days of the year. He also appeared regularly on the Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts.
The crazy schedule and stress that he faced took a toll on him, and his personal life. Drug and alcohol were a Roseanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara). She started to get impatient and angry with Johnny for never being home.
In 1966 Vivian decided that she wanted a divorce. Johnny left and went back to Memphis, Tennessee. His life continued to spiral out of control. Johnny's association with drugs became a part a part of his everyday life. They started wreaking havoc with his career. He was arrested for smuggling amphetamines into the US from Mexico, he was found almost dead in a small village in Georgia, and accidently started a forest fire in Tennessee. "I took all the drugs there are to take, and I drank," Johnny recalled. "Everybody said that Johnny Cash was through 'cause I was walkin' around town 150 pounds. I looked like walking death."
Johnny's Mug Shots
The Girl Who Saved His Life
The change in Johnny's life came in 1967, when he met singer-songwriter June Carter. June became friends with Johnny and then in 1968 married him. She stepped in and helped him clean up his life. With June's love and support, Johnny got cleaned up and became a committed Christian fundamentalist.
With June by his side Johnny turned his life around. In 1969 Johnny started his own show (The Johnny Cash Show), a Tv series that displayed contemporary musicians such as; Bob Dylan and Louis Armstrong.
The year that his show debuted, Johnny took home two Grammy Awards for the live album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968). The album was a huge success it reached Gold record status in December 1969. Four months after Johnny and June celebrated the birth of their first and only child (John Carter Cash).
Johnny's music career started up again with the new release of "A Thing Called Love" and "One Piece at a Time". And in 1975, Johnny wrote and autobiography called The Man In Black. Through out the 1970's-1990's, Johnny continued with his busy non-stop schedule. In 1980 Johnny was accepted as the youngest member of the Country Music Association Hall of Fame.
Johnny's health problems and his continuous battles with addiction, were never forgotten. In 1983, he had to have abdominal surgery in Nashville to fix the problems caused by the years he had used amphetamine. Just after the operation, he checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic. In 1987, Johnny went back into surgery, this time for his heart following his collapse on tour in Iowa.
But like always Cash got back on his feet. Only a little while after his induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame (1992), he took the stage for the Lollapalooza alternative rock tour and then teamed up with music producer Rick Rubin. While having Rubin as a producer, Johnny released American Recordings in 1994, a 13-track acoustic album that mixed traditional ballads with modern compositions. With this new album Johnny gained a new audience and a 1995 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Johnny's Influence on Music
Johnny Cash was not a great musical technician, but his sound was unforgettable with his unmistakable bass-baritone voice, a flexible blend of country, rock ‘n’ roll and folk music, and a willingness to explore themes that not many other musicians dared to even attempt in those times. Johnny broadened the idea of American country music internationally and his concerts drew massive audiences. In May 1969, over 26,000 attended one of Johnny's performances in Detroit, at that point it was the largest number ever for a country music concert. Johnny performed in many prison concerts, his first was in 1957 at Huntsville Texas State Prison and he played at Folsom Prison on four separate occasions. But it took him six years before he was able to convince Columbia Records to record a live album. The results of this album were unbelievable.
Johnny’s musical influences consist mostly within the roots of American country music, he was always open to new music. In the mid-1980s he started to take an interest in heavy metal music, going to concerts by Metallica, Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne, he spoke out against various attempts to censor rock music lyrics. “If a parent hasn’t been close enough to his kids to let them make their own decisions,” he said, “then it’s too late by the time they’re ready to rock ‘n roll.”
Johnny's trademark black attire infatuated some people, but his clothing wasn't a fashion statement or a marketing gimmick, but an expression of his genuine connection with the poor and those on the wrong side of the law. As his “Man in Black” song explained:
“I wear black for the poor and the beaten down
In 1993, Johnny joined Rick Rubin’s American Recordings and began the last phase of his career. Rubin, who founded the Def Jam label and made his name producing punk rock, rap and hip-hop groups, gave Johnny the artistic freedom and help he needed. Johnny sold more than 50 million records and recorded over 45 albums during his career.