John R. "Johnny" Cash (February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003), was an American singer-songwriter, actor, and author, who has been called one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Although he is primarily remembered as a country music artist, his songs and sound spanned many other genres, including rockabilly and rock and roll, as well as blues, folk, and gospel. Late in his career, Cash covered songs by several rock artists, among them the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails and the synthpop band Depeche Mode. Cash was known for his deep, distinctive bass-baritone voice, for the "boom-chicka-boom" freight train sound of his Tennessee Three backing band, for his rebelliousness, coupled with an increasingly somber and humble demeanor, for providing free concerts inside prison walls, and for his dark performance clothing, which earned him the nickname "The Man in Black.”
He traditionally started his concerts by saying, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," and usually following it up with his standard "Folsom Prison Blues." His lengthy career, spanning 1954 to 2003, saw the release of 96 albums and 153 singles on several record labels. Over the years, Cash also collaborated with many of the industry's most notable artists, and received many awards and accolades from different organizations.
Much of Cash's music, especially that of his later career, echoed themes of sorrow, moral tribulation and redemption. His signature songs include "I Walk the Line,” "Folsom Prison Blues,” "Ring of Fire,” "Get Rhythm" and "Man in Black.” He also recorded humorous numbers, such as "One Piece at a Time" and "A Boy Named Sue,” a duet with his future wife, June Carter, called "Jackson,” as well as railroad songs including "Hey, Porter" and "Rock Island Line.”
In 1954 Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio, hoping to get a recording contract. After auditioning for Sam Phillips, singing mostly gospel songs, Phillips told him that gospel was unmarketable. Cash eventually won over the producer with new songs delivered in his early frenetic style. His first recordings at Sun, "Hey Porter" and "Cry! Cry! Cry!," were released in 1955 and met with reasonable success on the country hit parade.
In December 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Phillips’ studio to pay a social visit 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 and were released under the title “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Cash's next record, "Folsom Prison Blues,” made the country Top 5, and "I Walk the Line" became #1 on the country chart and entered the pop chart 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.
In 1959 Cash left Sun to sign a lucrative offer with Columbia Records, where his single "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" became one of his biggest hits. His 1963 rendition of "Ring of Fire" was a crossover hit and the biggest of his career, reaching #1 on the country chart and entering the Top 20 on the pop chart.
In the mid-1960s, Cash released a number of concept albums, including 1965’s “Ballads Of the True West,” an experimental double record mixing authentic frontier songs with Cash's spoken narration, and 1964’s “Bitter Tears,” with songs highlighting the plight of the Native Americans. His drug addiction was at its worst at this point, and his destructive behavior led to a divorce from his first wife and canceled performances. In 1967, Cash's duet with future wife June Carter, "Jackson,” won a Grammy Award.
From 1969 to 1971, Cash starred in his own television show, “The Johnny Cash Show,” on the ABC network. In the mid-1970s, Cash's popularity and number of hit songs began to decline.
In the mid-1980s, he recorded and toured with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen, making two hit albums. In 1986, Cash returned to Sun Studios in Memphis to team up with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins to create the album “Class of '55.” Also in 1986, Cash published his only novel, “Man in White,” a book about Saul and his conversion to become the Apostle Paul. He also recorded “Johnny Cash Reads The Complete New Testament” in 1990.
After Columbia Records dropped Cash from his recording contract, he had a short and unsuccessful stint with Mercury Records from 1987 to 1991. His career was rejuvenated in the 1990s, leading to popularity with an audience not traditionally interested in country music. In 1991, he sang a version of "Man in Black" for the Christian punk band One Bad Pig's album “I Scream Sunday.” In 1993, he sang "The Wanderer" on U2's album “Zooropa.” Although no longer sought after by major labels, he was offered a contract with producer Rick Rubin's American Recordings label, better known for rap and hard rock.
Under Rubin's supervision, he recorded 1994’s “American Recordings” in his living room, accompanied only by his Martin dreadnought guitar, one of many Cash played throughout his career. The album featured covers of contemporary artists selected by Rubin and had much critical and commercial success, winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
In 1996, Cash enlisted the accompaniment of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and released “Unchained,” which won the Best Country Album Grammy. Believing he did not explain enough of himself in his 1975 autobiography “Man in Black,” he wrote “Cash: The Autobiography” in 1997.
Cash was a musician who was not tied to a single genre. He recorded songs that could be considered rock and roll, blues, rockabilly, folk, and gospel, and exerted an influence on each of those genres. Moreover, he had the unique distinction among country artists of having "crossed over" late in his career to become popular with an unexpected audience, young indie and alternative rock fans. His diversity was evidenced by his presence in three major music halls of fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Only 13 performers are in both of the last two, and only Hank Williams Sr., Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Bill Monroe share the honor with Cash of being in all three. However, only Cash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the regular manner, unlike the other country members, who were inducted as early influences. His pioneering contribution to the genre has also been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996. In 1999, Cash received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2001, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 2007, Cash was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.