Johnny Cash, one of the legendary American country singers, is still remembered for his deep, calm, baritone voice. He became a favorite of countless country music lovers through his concerts. He also earned the nickname, Man in Black, owing to his stage wardrobe that was all black in color. Most songs of Cash had themes of redemption, sorrow, and moral distress.
This was more apparent in the songs that he sung in his career’s later stages. Of course, there were some humorous songs as well, such as A Boy Named Sue, One Piece at a Time, and Jackson. Cash has sold over 90 million records across the world. This makes him one of the best-selling music artists of all time.
Breaking into the music industry
Cash was born to Ray and Carrie Cash in Kingsland, a town in Cleveland county in Arkansas. The earnings of his parents were not sufficient to feed him and his six siblings. This was mostly due to the Great Depression. The Cash family moved to northeastern Arkansas in 1935 after accepting an offer of resettlement from the government. The young Johnny Cash worked with his parents on the farm, where they grew cotton.
After having done with all the chores of the day, the Cash family used to sing hymns and traditional tunes in the evenings. The young Johnny Cash loved watching his mother sing and play guitar. By the age of 12, he was writing stories, poems, and songs. When he was 14, he took up his first non-farm job. However, he had already made up his mind that he wanted to pursue a career in music.
Cash began participating in talent contests and managed to impress a lot of listeners from the audience. In 1950, he graduated from high school, but had to enlist in the United States Air Force due to the Korean War. When he was in Germany with the Air Force, he purchased his first guitar.
He started a band with a few of his buddies and called it the Barbarians. They band played around the air base in small night clubs and honky tonks. Upon completing his time in the war, Johnny Cash shifted to Memphis. He then tried his best to enter the music industry while selling appliances door-to-door.
Rise to fame
He got signed to the Sun Records label in 1954, which was owned by Sam Phillips. The song he had written impressed Phillips while he was going back home from the Air Force. Cash wrote the song Cry, Cry, Cry overnight when Phillips wanted a ballad from him. It was for the b-side of Hey Porter.
It sold more than a hundred thousand copies in the southern states of America alone. Johnny Cash and his sidemen began touring with Elvis Presley and other artists of Sun Records. They performed on a radio program. Cash made his first television appearances around this time.
He shot to fame in the United States with his second recording, Folsom Prison Blues. His I Walk the Line remained a top country hit for 44 weeks. It managed to sell more than a million copies. Cash started making his appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, which is considered a great hub of country music.
In the 1950s
The rise in his popularity was so rapid that he soon became one of the top artists in country music. About 50 songs of Cash had been released by 1958. Even pop artists who were not associated with country music were recording his tunes. By the time he moved on to Columbia Records label, he had sold more than six million records for Sun.
Cash moved to California, bringing his parents along with him. The LP (long-playing record) began to emerge as the form of recorded music towards the end of 1950s. The album Fabulous Johnny Cash released in 1959 sold half a million copies.
Hymns and Songs of Our Soil and Don’t Take Your Guns to Town became major successes. Cash later appeared in television westerns as an actor and his concert fees increased significantly. Despite this, he took time from his schedule to perform at prisons nationwide free of charge.
The constant tours that Cash took in the 1960s had begun affecting his health. This was mainly because of his dependency on tranquilizers and other medications. He then moved to Tennessee from California and got married to June Carter after getting rid of his dependency on chemicals. This marriage proved to be a great booster, as he made a successful comeback.
The tickets to his concert at Carnegie Hall was sold out. The attendance at the Palladium in London even broke the record of the Beatles. Towards the end of the 1960s he also made regular appearance on television. The Johnny Cash Show had him presenting guest artists such as Glenn Campbell, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Eric Clapton.
Contribution towards humanitarian causes
By the end of the 1970s, Johnny Cash was a millionaire. There were a number of humanitarian causes that he worked for. Much of his earnings went to the American Cancer Society, mental health associations, and other such organizations. He also supported the Native American causes.
Cash campaigned for prison reforms, performed for the prison inmates, and helped many of them to assimilate with the mainstream society. Meanwhile, his autobiography titled Man in Black was released in 1975. This book sold over a million copies. He also wrote the book, Man in White, which was based on St. Paul’s life. It became a best-selling novel and this came as a surprise for his fans as well as critics.
In May 2003, June Carter Cash died from complications following her heart surgery. Four months after his wife’s death, Cash passed away at 71, following a respiratory failure after his long struggle with diabetes. He had received 11 Grammys over the course of his long musical career.
A motion picture called Walk the Line was released two years after his death. It was based on his life and became a commercial and critical success worldwide. As a result, there was a renewed interest in his life and the music that he made.