Johnny Cash was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, to Carrie Cloveree (née Rivers) and Ray Cash. He was the fourth of seven children.
Cash rose to fame in the prominent country music scene in Memphis, Tennessee, after four years in the United States Air Force. Cash was known for his deep, calm bass-baritone voice, the distinctive sound of his Tennessee Three backing band characterized by train-like chugging guitar rhythms, a rebelliousness coupled with an increasingly somber and humble demeanor, free prison concerts, and a trademark, all-black stage wardrobe, which earned him the nickname “The Man in Black”. He traditionally began his concerts by simply introducing himself, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” followed by his signature song “Folsom Prison Blues”.
Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio, hoping to get a recording contract. He auditioned for Sam Phillips by singing mostly gospel songs, only to learn from the producer that he no longer recorded gospel music. On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Phillips while Carl Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks, with Jerry Lee Lewis backing him on piano. Cash was also in the studio, and the four started an impromptu jam session. Phillips left the tapes running and the recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived. They have since been released under the title Million Dollar Quartet. In Cash: the Autobiography, Cash wrote that he was the farthest from the microphone and sang in a higher pitch to blend in with Elvis.
Cash’s next record, “Folsom Prison Blues”, made the country top five. His “I Walk the Line” became number one on the country charts and entered the pop charts top 20. “Home of the Blues” followed, recorded in July 1957. That same year, Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. Although he was Sun’s most consistently selling and prolific artist at that time, Cash felt constrained by his contract with the small label. Phillips did not want Cash to record gospel, and was paying him a 3% royalty rather than the standard rate of 5%. Presley had already left Sun, and Phillips was focusing most of his attention and promotion on Lewis.
In 1958, Cash left Phillips to sign a lucrative offer with Columbia Records. His single “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” became one of his biggest hits, and he recorded a collection of gospel songs for his second album for Columbia. However, Cash left behind a sufficient backlog of recordings with Sun that Phillips continued to release new singles and albums from them, featuring previously unreleased material until as late as 1964. Cash was in the unusual position of having new releases out on two labels concurrently. Sun’s 1960 release, a cover of “Oh Lonesome Me”, made it to number 13 on the C&W charts.
(When RCA Victor signed Presley, it also bought his Sun Records masters, but when Cash departed for Columbia, Phillips retained the rights to the singer’s Sun masters. Columbia eventually licensed some of these recordings for release on compilations after Cash’s death.)The Tennessee Three with Cash in 1963
In the early 1960s, Cash toured with the Carter Family, which by this time regularly included Mother Maybelle’s daughters, Anita, June, and Helen. June later recalled admiring him from afar during these tours. In the 1960s, he appeared on Pete Seeger’s short-lived television series Rainbow Quest. He also acted in, and wrote and sang the opening theme for, a 1961 film entitled Five Minutes to Live, later re-released as Door-to-door Maniac.
On July 18, 1951, while in Air Force training, Cash met 17-year-old Italian-American Vivian Liberto at a roller skating rink in her native San Antonio. They dated for three weeks until Cash was deployed to Germany for a three-year tour. During that time, the couple exchanged hundreds of pages of love letters. On August 7, 1954, one month after his discharge, they were married at St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church in San Antonio. The ceremony was performed by her uncle, Vincent Liberto. They had four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. In 1961, Johnny moved his family to a hilltop home overlooking Casitas Springs, California, a small town south of Ojai on Highway 33. He had previously moved his parents to the area to run a small trailer park called the Johnny Cash Trailer Park. Johnny’s drinking led to several run-ins with local law enforcement. Liberto later said that she had filed for divorce in 1966 because of Cash’s severe drug and alcohol abuse, as well as constant touring, affairs with other women, and his close relationship with June Carter. Their four daughters were then raised by their mother.
Cash met singer June Carter, of the famed Carter Family while on tour, and the two became infatuated with each other. In 1968, 13 years after they first met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Cash proposed to June, during a live performance in London, Ontario. The couple married on March 1, 1968, in Franklin, Kentucky. They had one child together, John Carter Cash, born March 3, 1970. He was the only son for both Johnny and June. In addition to having his four daughters and John Carter, Cash also became step-father to Carlene and Rosie; June’s daughters from her first two marriages.
Cash and Carter continued to work, raise their child, create music, and tour together for 35 years until June’s death in May 2003. Throughout their marriage, June attempted to keep Cash off amphetamines, often taking his drugs and flushing them down the toilet. June remained with him even throughout his multiple admissions for rehabilitation treatment and years of drug abuse. After June’s death, Cash believed that his only reason for living was his music. He died four months after her.