Johnny Cash would have been 89-years-old today. The Man in Black was born on Feb. 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas. With his booming baritone and devil-may-care attitude, Cash was one of the greatest vocal talents of his generation. The singer passed away in 2003 at the age of 71.
Cash had many iconic moments and songs throughout his career. To celebrate his birthday, Outsider picked some of his biggest and brightest moments.
Johnny Cash Broke News of Joseph Stalin’s Death
Before he was a singer or the Man in Black, Johnny Cash served four years in the Air Force as a code breaker. Cash was apparently as excellent at this job as he was at singing. Serving in Landsberg, West Germany, the future singer quickly rose up to the rank of Staff Sargent. But what’s more interesting is Cash was the first American to learn of Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin’s death.
Working as a Morse Code Intercept Operator, Cash intercepted news of Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953. He quickly passed on the important info. A year later, Cash left the Air Force and went on to pursue a career in music. But it’s interesting to look back at this point in Cash’s life and imagine if he had decided a career in the military.
Cash Records ‘The Chicken in Black’
For those who say Cash didn’t have a humorous side, never watched “The Chicken in Black.” No, that’s not a new KFC menu item. But it is the name of Cash’s 1984 song. And let’s just say that things get pretty bizarre. In the song and music video, Cash swaps brains with a chicken in a mad scientist’s experiment gone wrong. Cash recorded the tune during a slump in his career during the 1980s.
It’s rumored that Cash recorded the song in order to get out of a contract with Columbia Records. But others have refuted these claims and believe Cash was looking for a satirical hit similar to “A Boy Named Sue.” The music video is certainly an entertaining watch for sure.
Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley Unite in the Million Dollar Quartet
This iconic moment from Cash’s early career didn’t surface until years later. It was a meeting of titans in a Memphis recording studio. Cash, Carl Perks, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley joined forces for one afternoon only. And the results were nothing less than historic. The four musicians formed what people have dubbed “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
This wasn’t a planned meeting for some future album. All four musicians happened to be at Sun Records Studios on the same day. And as musicians often do, the four decided to jam together for a little while. It was sound engineer Jack Clement who decided to hit the record button, capturing the session for generations of future fans. As a result, the entire session feels like a group of friends just having fun.
The Singer Joins The Highwaymen
Johnny Cash had a thing for appearing in iconic quartets. During the 1980s, Cash joined the country supergroup, The Highwaymen. Formed in 1985, the group consisted of Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. That’s a lot of big country stars joined forces. The Highwaymen entertained audiences for over a decade, becoming one of the genre’s biggest team-ups.
Throughout their run, the Highwaymen produced three albums and also toured together. They even produced and filmed a western together. Cash and the other country stars decided to star in a remake of the classic John Wayne film “Stagecoach” in 1986.
Johnny Cash Goes to Prison
Cash made his career and a name for himself when he decided to put on a prison tour. The artist created an image of being a bit of a rebel and troublemaker himself. He became popular among the prison population, who saw a bit of themselves in Cash and his music. In 1968 and 1969, the singer performed at The Folsom State Prison and the San Quentin Prison.
Both albums added to Cash’s legacy and also raised awareness regarding inmates and incarceration. Cash separated himself from other musicians. After-all, few musicians would have the nerve or the empathy to place themselves behind bars for a series of concerts. His music even ended up inspiring an imprisoned Merle Haggard to pursue music and a career of his own after getting released.
Cash Proposes to June Carter On Stage
Johnny Cash and June Carter may be one of the greatest love stories in country music. Of course, Cash’s first wife disagreed with that sentiment. But Cash and Carter fell in love, starting a romance that lasted their entire lives. Carter had a calming effect on Cash, convincing the singer to beat his drug addiction. Their courtship culminated in an on-stage proposal in London. Cash asked Carter to marry him, and the two wed only a few short weeks later.
“Sometimes we irritate each other a little bit. Maybe sometimes take each other for granted,” Cash wrote once in a love letter to Carter. “But once in awhile, like today, I meditate on it and realize how lucky I am to share my life with the greatest woman I ever met. You still fascinate and inspire me. You influence me for the better. You’re the object of my desire, the #1 Earthly reason for my existence. I love you very much.”
Johnny Cash Bows Out with ‘Hurt’
Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” is absolutely devastating especially given its proximity to Cash’s death. The singer passed away months after recording the iconic music video. Given how authoritative Cash is, fans may be surprised to learn the tune started as a Nine Inch Nails song. Even that band’s singer agrees, “Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.”
Cash’s version is a rumination on getting old and reflecting on one’s life and choices. Cash reckons with the young man he once was and his reckless ways. He compares that with the man that he becomes in his old age and all the time that has passed since. More than any other tune, “Hurt” reflects on the power of Cash’s music and his career and is a powerful sendoff to one of music’s greatest voices.