Johnny Cash added a signature song to his expanding catalog when he recorded “Ring of Fire” on March 25, 1963.
With so many renowned hits in his venerable catalog, it’s difficult to pinpoint Johnny Cash’s signature hit. But “Ring of Fire” is a hot pick, to say the least.
Love Is a Burning Thing
By 1963, Johnny had already released a number of noteworthy hits, including chart-toppers “I Walk the Line” (1956), “Guess Things Happen That Way” (1958), “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” (1958), and more.
He 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. Keep reading.
Johnny Cash Falls Into the Fire
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 released his re-imagined version—complete with horns and the Carter Sisters backing vocals—in April 1963. The single reached No. 1 in July, and stayed there for seven weeks. The song also crossed over to become a Top 20 hit on the pop charts.
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.
In 2004, Johnny and Vivian’s daughter, Rosanne Cash, refused to allow “Ring of Fire” to be used in a hemorrhoid commercial (Merle Kilgore liked the idea). “The song is about the transformative power of love and that’s what it has always meant to me and that’s what it will always mean to the Cash children,” said Rosanne to the Tennessean.
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.”
Nonetheless, in 2014, Rolling Stone ranked the song No. 27 on its list of the 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time.
The RIAA certified “Ring of Fire” as Gold for sales of 500,000 units, making it one of Johnny’s best-selling singles of all time.