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Johnny Cash

"The Man in Black" His story might be called "The Three Faces of Johnny" for being the only person to be inducted into three musical Halls of Fame — Country Music, Rock 'n Roll, and Songwriters'. June Carter and Johnny Cash Cash easily qualifies as a rags-to-riches case study, born at the beginning of the Great Depression to sharecroppers on the Mississippi River in rural Arkansas. He can be heartily commended for beating an addiction to drugs and alcohol, with the help of June Carter Cash — wife, nursemaid, companion, inseparable singing partner, soulmate, and opposable thumb. And he stands with few giants among the musical mortals of this earth. The early years J.R., as he was sometimes called, was born in February 1932, to Ray and Carrie Cash, and was in the cotton fields of Dyess, Arkansas, by the age of five. The music bug was already biting John, since his daddy played guitar in a small combo during off hours. In 1937, the family had to endure a flood of the big river, giving rise to Cash's 1959 hit, "Five Feet High and Risin'." His humble beginnings, drought and flood stories heard from other sharecroppers, World War II, the death of his older brother, Jack, in a mill accident in 1944, field songs and chants, church music, freight trains rumbling through the countryside, the Grand Ole Opry on the radio on Friday and Saturday nights; all were integral themes in John's poems and stories, which became the basis of his songwriting. John got his first guitar at age 10 and was scheduled to take voice lessons the following year. Following three sessions, the teacher advised John to not take another lesson, but hang on to his natural voice and sense of music. By the age of 14, John was entering talent contests. He knew what he wanted to do for a living. Following high school, Cash made a quick trip to Michigan to see if assembling cars could help him build a nest egg. It was not to be. Next up was the U.S. Air Force and a stint in Germany. There he joined four other airmen hankering to be a part of a country-western musical group. They were known as "the Landsberg Barbarians." When Elvis Presley released "That's All Right" in 1954, with the legendary Sam Phillips and his Sun Records label, Cash was champin' at the bit to get out of the service and get serious about launching a music career. Before that happened, however, he made time to marry Vivian Liberto, whom he'd met while in basic training in Texas. Early successes Late in 1954, Cash wangled an audition with Phillips, who advised him and his backup group, the Tennessee Two, to stick to CW music and drop the gospel portion of their repertoire. In March 1955, Cash returned to Sun to reaudition. Phillips signed the trio, and then changed John's name to Johnny. He recorded "Hey Porter," which edged out Elvis to hit No. 14 on the CW charts. The tune earned Cash his first royalty check — $2.41. Two bright spots occurred later that year. The first of Cash's four daughters, Rosanne, was born. Second, Cash and group landed a 15-minute Saturday spot on a local Memphis radio station. In a December 1955 twist of fate, Cash recorded "Folsom Prison Blues" for Phillips — who had originally intended it for Tennessee Ernie Ford. The song made it to No. Four on the charts and earned Cash a check for $6,000. He later hooked up with the "Elvis Presley Jamboree" tour, with Carl Perkins, among others. Number One In April 1956, Cash hit the big time with "I Walk the Line," when it sold more than two million copies, topping the CW charts and crossing over to score well into the pop Top 20. Cash continued his success into 1957 with Top-15 Give My Love to Rose and made his debut on Grand Ole Opry. In 1958, Ballad of a Teenage Queen and Guess Things Happen That Way, hit No. One. In response to Sun Record's refusal to allow Cash to record a gospel album and not increasing his royalties, Cash jumped to Columbia Records in 1958. His first release for them was the Top-Five "All Over Again." One of Cash's biggest hits, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," made the crossover to the pop charts at the beginning of 1959. That was the year "Five Feet High and Risin'" made its showing, as did "Frankie's Man Johnny" and Hymns by Johnny Cash, his first gospel LP. The Sixties With Cash performing more than 300 concerts a year — he was said to have done more than 8,200 in his career — he turned to the medicine cabinet for a little "help" from amphetamines. By 1961, his work and the quality of his output was sorely affected. June Carter, the wife of drinking buddy Carl Smith, would lend a helping hand. Carter co-wrote "Ring of Fire" with Merle Kilgore for Johnny, which was one of his all-time best sellers. He followed that up with "Understand Your Man," in 1964. Cash took a turn for the worse in 1965, however, when he was busted in El Paso for smuggling amphetamines across the border in his guitar case. Despite the release of Orange Blossom Special, the downward spiral continued when the Grand Ole Opry refused to let him perform. He reacted by destroying the stage footlights. In 1966, Cash's marriage tanked. He moved back to Nashville and restablished his friendship with the now-divorced Carter. June Carter managed to help lead Cash out of the netherworld of addiction, and he converted to fundamentalist Christianity. His career was once again back on track with their duet, "Jackson," which won a Grammy, and "Rosanna's Going Wild," which cracked the Top 10. Early in 1968, Carter and Cash started down a fruitful road of holy matrimony that would last more than 30 years. Cash at Folsom Prison It was also in 1968 that Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, an album recorded live, was released. That was followed up in 1969 with a sequel, Johnny Cash at San Quentin, which contained the enormously popular single, "A Boy Named Sue." In December 1968, Cash, along with the Carter Family, Statler Brothers, and Carl Perkins, released the fun "Daddy Sang Bass." Cash parlayed his renewed popularity into a weekly television gig, "The Johnny Cash Show" on ABC, which ran for two years. Johnny's first guest on that show was Bob Dylan. The Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties — hits and misses The 1970s began with a flurry of activity, but the last half of the decade was spotty at best. Cash played the White House for President Nixon, co-starred with Kirk Douglas in A Gunfight (1971), and sang with the Boston Pops Orchestra. Single hits included "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "Flesh and Blood," and "Man in Black," which came in at Number Three on the charts. In the mid-1970s, Johnny's presence began to wane, although he teamed up with other star personalities to sing such duets as "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" with "Waylon Jennings." At that time, Johnny and June began to work with the Billy Graham Crusade and speak out on such social issues as Native American civil rights. Cash's autobiography, "Man in Black," was published in 1975. In 1980, Cash became the youngest person to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. One highlight enjoyed by many was the quartet of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon, and Johnny, called "The Highwaymen," recording an album in 1985. A break with Columbia Records and continuing squabbles with Cash's new label, Mercury Nashville, drove Cash into virtual obscurity. The Highwaymen recorded a second album in 1992, which was commercially more successful than their first release. As health problems began to dog Cash in the Nineties, his concert and recording schedule were unavoidably reduced. He signed a contract with American Records in 1993, and, in a totally new direction, produced American Recordings, an album aimed at a younger, rock-'n-roll-type of audience. Although it wasn't a blockbuster at the retail level, it was critcally acclaimed and revived his career. The Highwaymen released their third album in 1995, The Road Goes on Forever, although some thought it should be called Don't These Guys Ever Go Away?. In 1996, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers supported Cash on his Unchained album, which earned him a Grammy for Best Country-Western Album. After an undistinguished couple of years, Cash released a three-disc retrospective with the eerie-sounding title, Love, God, Murder, which focused on the themes that dominated Johnny's work throughout his career. The end Cash had one more album and a video left in him as the new millenium began. American IV: The Man Comes Around, appeared in late 2002, and featured a number of well-known singles: "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (Hank Williams), "Desperado" (The Eagles), "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (Simon and Garfunkel), and Hurt (Nine Inch Nails). The cheeky little MTV video of Hurt surprisingly was nominated for Video of the Year, and the song won a Grammy (Best Short Form Music). Sadly, health issues took control of both Johnny and June. Cash's beloved wife died of complications following heart surgery in May 2003. Johnny died of complications from diabetes in September of that year. He was 71.