Johnny Cash’s music transcends genres and generations. If I had a quarter for every time I heard someone say, “I don’t like country music, but I like Cash,” I’d be able to feed a jukebox for the rest of my life. Songs like “A Boy Named Sue,” are a great example of the Man in Black’s mass appeal.
Fifty-two years ago today, “A Boy Named Sue,” hit the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. At the same time, it landed at number two on the publication’s Hot 100 chart. The song was Johnny Cash’s first appearance in the chart’s top-10.
Johnny Cash played the song live for the first time while recording the 1969 album Live at San Quentin. The inmates had such a positive reaction to it that Cash convinced his label to release it as a single.
Johnny Cash Records ‘A Boy Named Sue’
The song itself tells the story of Sue growing up mean and looking for revenge. However, the story behind the song is an interesting one.
Shel Silverstein, legendary songwriter, children’s author, and humorist penned the song. According to Today I Found Out, Silverstein first played the tune for Johnny Cash at a party just weeks before he recorded it. At one point during the party, the guests started passing a guitar around and sharing songs.
During the shindig, Joni Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now,” Bob Dylan performed, “Lay Lady, Lay,” and Shel played “A Boy Named Sue.” Cash immediately fell in love with the song. As a result, Silverstein wrote the lyrics out and gave them to Johnny. However, it was June Carter who urged her husband to play the song at San Quentin.
Johnny Cash almost didn’t play the song. He was afraid that he wouldn’t have time to learn it. In fact, he didn’t. If you watch the video above, you’ll see that Johnny is reading the lyrics from the music stand in front of him. However, you’d never know by listening to the audio.
The Today I Found Out video includes a quote from Johnny Cash about “A Boy Named Sue.” “I’d only sung it the first time the night before and I read it off as I sang it. I still didn’t know the words. As a last resort, I pulled those lyrics out and laid them on the music stand, and when it came time that I thought I was brave enough, I did the song.”
So, Johnny Cash took a gamble performing a song that he didn’t know in front of a room full of inmates. In the end, it paid off in spades. Today, “A Boy Named Sue,” is one of the Man in Black’s best-known singles.