Toledoan recalls scenes from life of Johnny CashWritten by Barbara John | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Johnny Cash died three years ago Sept. 12. Despite the medical terminology for his death, those of us who worked with him know he died of a broken heart.
Though he lived to become an icon to a new generation, and was adored by fans spanning six decades, without his beloved wife June Carter Cash by his side, his indominatable spirit left him.
As I piece together the patchwork quilt of my memories of Johnny Cash, I realized these vignettes were never used in his biographies, documentaries or the movie about his life. I know them because I was there.
My life with Johnny Cash began on Nov. 25, 1968. I had booked the 165-pound recovering addict to headline a show in Los Angeles. When he arrived, I approached him, asking, “Mr. Cash, could you do your first song without your guitar?” He growled, “Mr. Cash is my Daddy. What do you have in mind?” The result is the classic Cash pose with the guitar slung around to his back.
We were in the Oval Office at the White House. President Richard Nixon graciously received John, June and a few close staff members. As was customary, the President gave gifts to his guests. As he presented Johnny with a pair of cuff links with the Presidential Seal, John said, “Mr. President, no one will ever appreciate a gift as much as I do these cuff links.” John stretched out his long arms to reveal his French cuffs being held together with paper clips. I know, because I was there.
We were in Dallas, backstage at Johnny’s first appearance at a Billy Graham Crusade. He was nervous. He was pacing. Dr. Graham said, “Relax, Johnny. You’ve faced big crowds before.” Johnny replied, “It’s not that Dr. Graham … but I’m trying to quit smoking … again.” Billy Graham put his hand on John’s shoulder and said, “I’ll say a prayer for you” and walked away. John told this story on stage many times, explaining, “I’ve never had a cigarette since. I don’t know how to tell Billy Graham his prayers don’t work!”
It was 1971 … vacation time for John and June. They had never seen any Broadway plays. I got them tickets to “Sleuth,” “1776” and “The Fantastiks.” We were late arriving at the off-Broadway theater and waited for a break in the action before being shown to our seats, which unfortunately were on the far side of the theater. John was shy. He was polite. As we crossed in front of the stage, you could hear whispers, “That’s Johnny Cash” … and suddenly, not from the audience, but from the stage, came a heartwarming round of applause. Typical of Johnny, he took the entire cast to dinner after the show.
We were in Israel making the film “Gospel Road,” John and June’s dream of telling the story of Christ as a man: warm, human, loving. The scene I remember most is John standing on a cliff at Capernaum, in a wind so strong that sand covered the camera lens and blew his script away. The wind shifted, and John continued to talk the story as he felt it. That picture was so awe-inspiring, it is on the cover of the “Gospel Road” album.
We were at San Quentin. He was wildly greeted by the 1,200 minimum and medium security inmates. All was well until John sang “San Quentin,” a condemnation of prison systems. When he got to the lines “San Quentin may you rot and burn in hell … ” the prisoners were on their feet. The guards moved into position. John took over, asking the guards to stay in place and he talked the men back into their seats.
I was there at the Country Music Associaton award show the night Johnny won an unprecedented five awards; when he thanked the country of Sweden for hanging an American flag in his honor; in Australia when the Sidney zoo keepers gave two-year-old John Carter a baby kangaroo to play with.
Although Johnny clung to and valued his country upbringing, he was often ahead of his time in his thinking. In the early days of “women’s lib,” a reporter asked for his opinion of its merits. He gave two examples: June and me. “Without these two women in my life” … he let it hang, then grinned and said, “The more freedom they have, the more they give. They aren’t fighting for equality, I am. Total women. Total professionals. Both of ’em.”
I know, because I was there.
Barbara John served as Cash’s concert producer for seven years.