Claim to Fame: “The Man in Black”
DOB: February 26, 1932
Date of death: September 12, 2003
Diabetes type: 2
While the nickname “The Man in Black” calls up visions of an outlaw, Johnny Cash and his band originally dressed in black because they had nothing else that matched. Cash told an interviewer that “black is better for church.”
J.R. Cash was born on February 26, 1932 in the impoverished town of Kingsland, Arkansas. By the age of five, he was working with the rest of his family in the cotton fields. When the Korean War began, Cash enlisted in the navy, during which time he bought a guitar and taught himself to play. One of the first songs he ever wrote was also one of his most popular: “Folsom Prison Blues,” written after he watched the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951). After his discharge from the navy, Cash auditioned for Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records. Cash had originally tried to sell himself as a gospel singer, but when that strategy met with rejection, he returned to the label with more commercial material, and was signed to a contract. He proceeded to write several singles that crossed the musical genre border, and reached both the country and pop charts. In November of 1957, Cash became the first Sun Records artist to release a full-length album (Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar). Around this time, frustrated with both creative and financial constraints from Sun Records, Cash signed with Columbia Records. Sun continued releasing singles that Cash had already recorded, and for a while, Johnny Cash singles from both labels competed on the charts.
The next year marked the beginning of Cash’s drug addiction, a problem that persisted through the mid-1960s. While Johnny had the occasional hit during this period, like Ring of Fire (co-written by June Carter), his addiction threatened his career. It was with the help of June Carter (with whom he had become close) that Cash was able to clean himself up and regain his status in the music world. By 1968, Cash and Carter, who were touring together, both became the victims of failed marriages, and during a concert at the London Gardens, Cash proposed. They married a week later.
The years following the wedding were both successful and productive years for Johnny Cash. In 1968, he recorded and released his most popular album, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. The album made an appearance on both the country and pop charts, and spawned a sequel, Johnny Cash at San Quentin, a year later. The year 1969 also saw the debut of ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show, which lasted until 1971. In 1970, President Nixon requested that Cash perform at the White House.
In the late 1970s, Cash’s popularity dwindled somewhat, but “The Man in Black” still had a few hits. He published the first of two autobiographies (Man in Black), guest-starred on episodes of Columbo and Little House on the Prairie, and began hosting annual Christmas specials on CBS. In 1980, Cash became the youngest artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His solo work was not very prevalent at that point, so he played with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. They released two hit albums under the name The Highwaymen. Cash did more acting, including a critically-acclaimed performance as John Brown in the miniseries North and South (1985).
Cash’s career was rejuvenated in the 1990s by recording with such acts as U2, but his solo career returned in full swing when he joined producer Rick Rubin in 1994. Rubin signed Cash to his American Recordings label, and Johnny began putting out albums of both cover songs and original material. The first album, American Recordings (1994), was released to both critical and commercial success. Four more albums were released in the series (the last posthumously). The albums included guest appearances by such artists as Sheryl Crow and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
In 1997, Cash was diagnosed with autonomic neuropathy associated with his diabetes. He stopped touring, but continued recording. American IV: The Man Comes Around was released in 1994, featuring a cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” The video for the song was an artistic triumph, and represented the final chapter in a remarkable career.
Cash died on September 12, 2003 in a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee at the age of seventy-one. Today, there is newfound interest in the life and music of “The Man in Black,” thanks to the 2005 biopic, Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.