Musical legend Johnny Cash would’ve turned 85 years old today. Cash, one of the best-selling musicians of all time, passed away in 2003 due to respiratory failure and complications from diabetes, but Johnny’s musical influence lives on.
Johnny was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, as J.R. Cash to the Southern Baptist sharecroppers according to Rolling Stone. Reportedly when Cash went to enlist in the Air Force, he was told he could not have initials for his first name and therefore chose the name John R. Cash. Eventually, when he signed with Sun Records, he chose the stage name Johnny Cash.
When Johnny returned from his service overseas, he married his sweetheart Vivian Liberto. The couple had four children. Cash tried his hand at working regular jobs, but according to his official website, he always found his way back to music.
Cash started writing songs and playing guitar at the age of 12 at the urging of his mother, according to some biographers, while others insist he didn’t write music or buy his first guitar until he was in the service. Regardless, Cash was influenced by music at an early age by folk songs and church hymns and grew up in a musical family. Johnny’s own style of music was known to cross over multiple genres, with everything from gospel and country to blues and rock and roll, and inspired many of today’s prominent musicians.
Johnny’s career skyrocketed with the release of his single “Cry, Cry, Cry” which broke the Billboard Top 20. Over the course of a decade, unfortunately as Cash’s stardom rose, his family fell apart. Johnny had become addicted to narcotics in order to keep up with the pace of his rigorous schedule, and in 1966, he and Liberto divorced. Johnny developed a reputation as a hellion during that period, trashing hotel rooms while intoxicated and reportedly being arrested seven times.
Cash developed empathy for the plight of prisoners despite the fact that he only spent a handful of days in jail. Johnny frequently played prison gigs and two of his best-selling live albums took place in Folsom and San Quentin prisons.
Johnny found help for his addiction and was able to turn his life around thanks to his singing partner June Carter and the support of her family. The couple married in 1968 and continued to make music and tour together until June’s passing in May of 2003. Johnny passed away just a few months later.
Cash’s musical influence on other musicians was recalled by everyone from Bob Dylan to Justin Timberlake at the time of his death. In proving Johnny’s crossover appeal, one could simply note how Cash was inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Halls of Fame. Fellow musicians aspired to work with him or even emulate him.
Singer Sheryl Crow recalled the time that Cash took her song “Redemption Day” and turned it from a political statement into an emotionally vulnerable song about personal redemption. Johnny recorded his own version of Crow’s song for his American VI: Ain’t No Grave just before his death and frequently called Sheryl to get her perspective on it.
“Actually, that’s the highest honor I’ve ever had of anything in my whole life,” Sheryl said of her interaction with Cash over the song according to The Boot. “Him (Johnny) calling me and asking me, ‘What were you thinking when you wrote this?’ And him telling me about what it meant to him … that was a true testament to him as an artist, wanting to be able to deliver a song and understand what it meant.”
Johnny Cash frequently covered the music of up-and-coming musicians including some unusual choices that fell outside the parameters of Cash’s musical genre including Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” U2’s “One,” and Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.” Perhaps that was part of Johnny Cash’s appeal — he loved the music of others as much as they loved his.
[Featured Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]