Writers and critics usually like to place artists in categories, but Johnny Cash’s versatility must have caused them a bit of trouble over the years. He became famous by singing country ballads, but the sound he introduced was new and different. Love songs, often flavoured with elements of folk, gospel and rockabilly, touched the hearts of millions and brought him world-wide fame. Sun Records’ producer Sam Phillips knew he was getting somebody unique when he signed Cash; he already had a stable of successful artists on his label and did not need another singer.
J.R. Cash was born on February 26th, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas, the third son of Carrie and Ray Cash. Times were hard during the Great Depression and Cash grew up helping his family pick cotton. It was a religious family and the music he heard at church made a deep impact on him, later inspiring him to record gospel albums. Cash became serious about singing when he was sixteen; his voice had just broken and it was with his mother’s encouragement that he started to take singing lessons and act is school plays. Even from an early age it was obvious that Cash had been gifted with a luxuriant baritone voice.
After his graduation in 1951, Cash joined the US Air Force, as many other southern country boys did, for lack of a better way out of the cotton fields. He was based in Landsberg, Germany, where his distinctive voice and good ear proved useful in his duty as a radio operator. When not on duty, Cash picked up guitar playing and sang and drank with his colleagues. Once back in the States, he pursued a musical career and started writing and playing rhythm guitar with a band consisting of Luther Perkins (not related to Carl Perkins) on guitar and Marshall Grant on bass. It seemed a natural move for them to try their luck at Sun Records, the label that had made stars of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. After some persuasion, they gained an audition and managed to impress producer Sam Phillips with their unusual style. Perkins only knew about three chords and played on one string at a time, developing a pounding ‘boom-chicka-boom’ rhythm. This rhythm became a trademark that would always be associated with Johnny Cash. As Sun Records did not market gospel records, Phillips asked them to come back with some country songs and Cash (who had already delivered “Hey Porter”) returned with “Cry, Cry, Cry”, which became the first single by Johnny Cash & The Tennessee Two.
From this point on Cash went from success to success; the follow-up-singles, “Folsom Prison Blues”and “I Walk The Line” were major hits and have now become country music classics. Johnny Cash became a household name, and in response to popular demand he soon found himself doing a busy touring schedule. He was nicknamed “The Man In Black”, initially because he refused to wear the shiny rhinestone outfits that many of his colleagues wore on stage. The cost of success can sometimes be high. In Cash’s case he found it difficult to cope with his sudden fame and heavy touring. Serious addiction to painkillers and amphetamine started to affect his life and continued to haunt him for the main part of his career.
Drawn by lucrative royalties and the promise of a gospel album, Cash decided to switch to the Columbia label in 1958, an association that would last almost thirty years. The move was not an instant success but it was for Columbia, for whom many of his childhood idols recorded, that Cash would enjoy the majority of his hits. Songs like“Ring Of Fire”, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “A Boy Named Sue” brought him world-wide fame. Amazingly, he had cut so many tracks, unreleased at the time, for Sun that Sam Philips continued to release ‘new’ Cash albums until 1964. Another step up the ladder of fame came with his 1960 film debut “Five Minutes More”. He later starred with Kirk Douglas in “A Gunfight”. His efforts were evidently not unnoticed, as he was asked to his own national ABC television series “The Johnny Cash Show”, which ran successfully between 1969 and 1971.
Just like his colleague Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash became known for his tangles with the law. Associated with smashed-up hotel rooms and car crashes, he even managed to start a forest fire on one occasion. Considering his heavy drug abuse and declining health, the amount of tracks he managed to record during his career is remarkable, it is rumoured that he has recorded in excess of 1,400 songs. No matter what his physical state, he always delivered the powerful vocal performances people came to expect from him.
Cash continued releasing albums and touring during the 1970s and 1980s, but it was not until Columbia released him from his contract in the early 1990s that he was to enjoy any real success. Producer Rick Rubin signed him to his American Recordings label in 1994, for which he released five acclaimed albums. The recordings featured fine backing musicians ranging from Tom Petty and Mick Fleetwood to Bono from U2.
Years of drug addiction had taken its toll on his health and after several wrong diagnoses, Cash took his doctor’s advice and stopped touring in 1997. The decision enabled him to focus on the writing of new songs . Hospital visits became more frequent and when his wife June Carter passed away in May 2003, Johnny followed her three months later. He was 71 years-old and had just completed his fifth release for American Recordings, “A Hundred Highways”. Although not released until a couple of years later, it was to become his first number one album in the US since 1969.
In 2005 the film “Walk The Line” was released in cinemas world-wide. The film, which focused on his early career and his relationship with June Carter, became an instant box office hit and introduced Johnny Cash to a whole new generation of fans.
This 3CD set includes all of Johnny Cash’s biggest songs from 1956-1962, as well as one disc featuring some of his later hits performed live in concert. The recordings clearly demonstrate what a great live performer he was. As a special bonus, we have also found space for some rare radio recordings and adverts from 1956. Enjoy!