It’s difficult to decipher with certainty Johnny Cash’s biggest hit, but “Ring of Fire” certainly has three important metrics to back up that claim. And on July 27, 1963, Johnny topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart with the fiery hit.
By 1963, Johnny had established himself as a major force in the country genre. He had already scored a handful of chart-toppers, including “I Walk the Line” (1956), “Guess Things Happen That Way” (1958), “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” (1958), and more. By the end of the 1960s, Johnny started racking up CMA Awards, ACM Awards, and Grammy Awards.
However, from 1960-1962, Johnny had hit a relative dry spell on the charts. He released more than a dozen tunes, with many of them failing to crack the Top 40. Of course, “In the Jailhouse Now” did reach No. 8 in 1962. Nevertheless, with the release of “Ring of Fire” in 1963, Johnny made a triumphant (sound the horns) return to the top.
Love Is a Burning Thing
In the early 1960s, Johnny Cash was also spiraling out of control with an addiction to amphetamines. In addition, his first marriage to Vivian Liberto, whom he wed in 1954, was crumbling. When June Carter, along with her mother Maybelle and sisters Anita and Helen, joined Johnny Cash on his road show in 1961, the “ring of fire” started to burn. Or, perhaps it flickered the time she met Johnny backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956. Nonetheless, June and Johnny had fallen for each other by 1963. At the time, June was still married to her second husband, Rip Nix.
In 1962, June and friend Merle Kilgore decided to pour her conflicted feelings into a song that compared love to nothing less than the flames of hell. And “Ring of Fire” was born. Or, at least, that’s one version of the story. Vivian Liberto had another. In her posthumously published 2007 autobiography, I Walked the Line, Johnny first wife, Vivian, who died in 2005, denied that June Carter had any part in writing “Ring of Fire.”
“She didn’t write that song any more than I did,” wrote Vivian. “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part.”
Cash Sounds the Horns
June’s sister, Anita Carter, originally recorded the tune, titled “Love’s Ring of Fire.” Her folksy version of the song failed to make much of splash, so Johnny put his pipes on it on March 25, 1963.
Johnny Cash released his re-imagined version—complete with horns and the Carter Sisters backing vocals—in April 1963. The single reached No. 1 on July 27, and stayed there for seven weeks. The song also crossed over to become a Top 20 hit on the all-genre chart.
Of course, Johnny and June got married in 1968 after divorcing their respective spouses in 1966. Merle Kilgore was Johnny’s best man. The pair remained married for 35 years until June died in May 2003. Johnny passed away a few months later in September 2003.
- “Ring of Fire” spent seven weeks atop the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, which is Johnny’s record for most weeks at No. 1.
- The song is one of three Cash singles (along with “A Boy Named Sue” and “Hurt”) to be certified Gold by the RIAA for sales of 500,000 units.
- “Ring of Fire” (No. 17) is one of only a handful of Cash singles to reach the Top 20 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart.