John R. Cash (born J. R. Cash; February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003)
It’s difficult to talk about someone like Johnny Cash and not repeat what many have already read, heard or seen. So please forgive some of my personal stories as it relates to Johnny Cash. I never had the opportunity to see the man himself play live, though I’ve heard his music for most of my life. My father was a fan, so it was not unusual to hear his records, or my Dad pluck one of his songs on his steel guitar or on an old organ we had for awhile. And unfortunately for me, the gene pool of talent for playing an instrument ran out after my two older brothers, leaving me to finally give up after several failed attempts.
At least 132 of Cash’s original songs have been covered and a master of cover songs himself, he recorded nearly 400. I will start with my favorite original song.
“Big River” written by Johnny Cash, recorded November 1957, released as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. Here is a great live clip from 1962.
You will note in this video there are three members of the group. The original Tennessee Two were Luther Perkins on electric guitar and Marshall Grant on bass and in 1960 W.S. Marshall joined on drums and they eventually renamed themselves the Tennessee Three.
Rosanne Cash has said of the song “I think my dad’s ‘Big River’ is one of the most eloquent pieces of American poetry ever written”. Here is her version(1980), and a great one at that.
At least 70 covers have been recorded of this song. A very difficult act to follow on this song in particular so many of the versions, even by talented singers don’t measure up very well.
Here is one of the best from Hank Williams Jr. in 1970. It includes an omitted verse from the original that Cash frequently included when he did it live.
I had the pleasure of meeting a friend of Johnny Cash while on vacation in the Dominican Republic in 2010. Charles Ritzen and his wife Candy started and ran a free dental clinic and pharmacy with a Canadian Orthodontist, Dr. Gerry in El Choco (Sosúa) near where we were staying in Cabarete. An amazing place that was self-sustaining, growing crops and raising cattle. While my family was zip lining (they added a zip line and Monkey Jungle to provide financial support to the clinic), I had an opportunity to get a tour and chat with Chuck and learn a bit about him (a truly remarkable man). He was very humble and said he had ‘some’ success in business since he graduated from Vanderbilt University. While they were vacationing frequently in the area he and his wife noticed the local population, particularly the rural area had no dental care. “They love their sugar here, four or five spoonfuls in their coffee, so tooth decay and diabetes rates are very high” he said.
He had country music piped in via some speakers, so as it often does with me (if I can) the conversation touched on music. He told me about teaching John Jr. how to scuba dive and that John and June used the last name of Carter for him, especially fearful about his safety after the family was robbed and locked in the cellar of their Jamaican home (a story I had never heard).
Apparently rubbing shoulders with the county music elite near his home in Nashville was just another day for Chuck, though they pretty much lived full time near the clinic now he said. I was able to share a bit of trivia with him that John proposed to June in my hometown of London, Ontario (1968), Chuck knew the story of course and recalled it happened during a live show but didn’t know where (the old home of the London Knights actually). As I supposed Chuck had never heard of London before, not so, in an odd coincidence Chuck himself had once visited London many years ago looking to buy steel from a factory called London Steel (now Russel Metals), turns out the place is five blocks away from where I grew up! Sorry for the personal indulgence 🙏
Here is the song they were about to sing when Johnny popped the question. “Jackson”
This is the original version of the song written in 1963 by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber (yes of that Leiber and Stoller song writing dynamo) sung by the Kingston Trio.
A scene from the movie “Walk the Line” dramatizing the awkward moment
Some might say the definitive and certainly the signature Cash song “I Walk the Line” , written by Johnny Cash and recorded April 2, 1956 and released May 1, 1956 by Johnny Cash and Tennessee Two.
Covered about 130 times to date, including Leonard Nimoy, Waylon Jennings and The Everly Brothers. Here is the powerful voice of Timi Yuro in 1963. Brook Benton in 1966
“The Beast in Me” written by Nick Lowe (married to Carlene Carter 1979-1990). He had started writing it back in 1979, Nick had played a bit of it at that time for his once upon a time Father-in-law Johnny Cash. Johnny asked him to finish it for his new album and then recorded it Dec. 5 1993. Here is a live performance from the amazing show “Later… with Jools Holland” in 1994. My Nick Lowe bias is glaring right now but is this not a perfect song for the tumultuous life of the Man in Black?
Trivia note, this song (Lowe version) was used in the end credits of the first episode of “The Sopranos”.
Here is a news clipping about the tragic death of Charles and Candy Ritzen in 2016.
The relatively new Johnny Cash museum in Nashville sits on property previously owned by Charles (Chuck) Ritzen.
This clip (very poor audio) at the 2:20 mark has Chuck talking about the story he told me of some local so-called ‘authorities’ who showed up with guns trying to extort money when they were building the clinic. He left out the part he told me about showing them (the so-called authorities) his I believe he said Smith and Wesson handgun.
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