Johnny Cash, the Grammy Award-winning country singer whose ballads of love and hardship made him a music legend and one of the world's most admired performers, died of complications of diabetes yesterday at Baptist Hospital in Nashville. He was 71.
Known as "The Man in Black" for his signature dark apparel both on and off the stage, he recorded 1,500 songs and sold more than 50 million records in a career that stretched back to the birth of rock-and-roll in the 1950s. From his days as a young performer and throughout his career, his music told stories of the poor and disenfranchised while blending the sounds of folk, country, blues and pop.
With his gravelly, baritone voice, he helped popularize the rollicking boom-chicka-boom rhythm while writing and singing compassionately about the rough edges of Americana: the Western frontier, cowboys, outlaws, prisoners, hobos, blue-collar workers and desperate lovers.
His most memorable hits included "I Walk the Line"; "Ring of Fire," co-written by his late wife, June Carter Cash, and Merle Kilgore; "Folsom Prison Blues"; "Sunday Morning Coming Down," written by Kris Kristofferson; "I Still Miss Someone"; "A Boy Named Sue"; and "Big River."
"I try to write lyrics that make sense to all kinds of people," Cash once said. "I'm no message-bringer. Mostly I just tell stories."
To many fans, he was a maverick, a rugged, broad-shouldered guy who exuded cool. He usually stood alone on stage, guitar in hand. He wore a preacher's coat, striped pants and patent leather boots while opening his concerts with what became a familiar refrain: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." This stark image under the stage lights ran counter to his personality, which came across as humble, self-effacing and introspective.
In "Folsom Prison Blues," he sang about a prisoner resigned to his fate behind bars for killing a man but nevertheless bitter upon hearing the whistle of a locomotive, reminding him of a free world outside the prison walls.
In "A Boy Named Sue," written by Shel Silverstein, he picked his guitar while relaying a comic tale of a man seeking vengeance on his father who before abandoning the family cruelly named his son Sue.
Cash won 11 Grammy Awards, most recently in February for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for the song "Give My Love to Rose."
He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980 and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. In 2000, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
After a long hiatus from the popular spotlight, his music returned to prominence in 1994 when he signed with the label American Recordings, subsequently releasing two critically praised albums, first "Cash: American Recordings," and then "Unchained." Last year, he released "American IV: The Man Comes Around." The new recordings helped establish Cash as a pop icon among a younger generation unfamiliar with his earlier hits.
Over the years, he influenced a generation of singers, among them Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. A host of other performers, including Lyle Lovett and Trisha Yearwood, paid homage to Cash in tribute concerts as his health began to fail in recent years.
"In terms of popular music, he was a major influence on anybody in America who decided to pick up a guitar," said Lovett, who took part in Cash's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "His music was so broad and far-reaching because that's the way he thought. He didn't confine himself to a genre. And he had the charisma and personality to carry it off -- and not everybody does."
In a written statement, Country Music Association Executive Director Ed Benson called Cash "an international ambassador for Country Music and a musical trailblazer throughout his life. It is incomprehensible to imagine what country music would have been like without Johnny Cash and his music."
Despite being slowed by bouts with pneumonia from diabetic neuropathy, glaucoma and asthma the last few years, Cash continued with new releases and cover songs. Last month, he received an MTV Video Music Award for best cinematography for the video of his rendition of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt." He was unable to attend the ceremonies, where he had been nominated for six other awards, because he was hospitalized for an unspecified stomach ailment.
Cash got his start at Sun Records in Memphis, where in the mid-1950s he was among a fleet of singers and rabble-rousers who would become music legends. They were Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Sun Records owner Sam Phillips initially balked at the prospect of signing Cash, who at the time considered himself primarily a gospel singer. After Phillips told Cash to return with an original piece of work, Cash penned the lyrics to "Hey Porter," and then "Cry, Cry Cry," which was released in 1955 and sold more than 100,000 copies.
With Phillips's support, Cash said he was able to stay true to his original sound during his early recording days. It was a sound, Cash said, that stressed soul, fire and heart over technical perfection.
Cash, a former Air Force radio operator and door-to-door appliance salesman, drove to Memphis shows in a beat-up Plymouth with his bandmates Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins, who became known as the Tennessee Two.
In 1955, Cash recorded "Folsom Prison Blues," which reached No. 4 on the Billboard Country and Western chart. He went on to tour with Presley, Perkins and George Jones. The next year, "I Walk the Line" reached No. 1 on the country chart and the top 20 on Billboard's pop chart.
His follow-up country and pop singles became instant hits. He began making guest appearances on such television variety shows as "The Jackie Gleason Show."
At the height of his popularity in the 1960s, his tour schedule included more than 300 shows a year. He also performed on the "Tonight Show" and released pioneering concept albums, including "Bitter Tears" and "Ballads of the True West."
He signed a deal with ABC to produce his own television program, "The Johnny Cash Show," which featured an eclectic mix of musical performers, from Louis Armstrong to Merle Haggard.
But for all his commercial success, Cash's personal life began to unravel from drug abuse and alcohol. He began taking amphetamines, sleeping pills and prescription painkillers. He often followed the pills with wine and beer. His erratic behavior led to violent outbursts, hangovers and problems in his marriages.
"Touring and drugs were what I did, with the effort involved in drugs mounting steadily as time went by," Cash said in his 1997 autobiography, "Cash."
Family members, friends and fellow performers warned him that he was on a road to self-destruction. But he brushed aside the warning, staying up for days at a time, then taking a handful of pills and crashing.
Hungover and strung out, he began canceling tour dates and failed to show up for recording appointments. Desperate, he drove himself to a secluded mountainous area on the Tennessee River outside Chattanooga and considered crawling into a cave to die.
Lying there in Nickajack Cave, alone in the dark, he discovered a sense of inner peace and attributed the feeling to God. "I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny," Cash wrote. "I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God's time, not mine."
He started to clean up his act in 1967 and slowly, after setbacks and relapses, he was healthy enough to appear on stage. He got help along the way from his longtime friend June Carter, who came from a well-known country music family. The month before their marriage in March 1968, they won a Grammy for best country and western performance by a duo or group for "Jackson," a fast-paced tune about a husband threatening to go to Jackson to "mess around" and a wife feigning indifference.
Cash, who split his time among his homes in Nashville, Port Richey, Fla., and Jamaica, was born John R. Cash in Kingsland, Ark., on Feb. 26, 1932. He was one of seven children in his family who grew up working on a cotton farm during the Depression. He preferred to be called J.R or Johnny because, as he said, John was his father's name.
He dealt with death at a relatively young age when his older brother Jack, whom he described as his protector and hero, died from injuries sustained in a table saw accident in 1944. The death profoundly affected his outlook on life.
As a young man, when he wasn't working or attending school, a mail-order Sears Roebuck radio became his connection from the backwoods of Arkansas to the outside world of pop, country, gospel and blues music. "The music I heard became the best thing in my life," Cash recounted in his autobiography.
He credited his love for music to his mother, who often sang spiritual hymns around the farm, and his maternal grandfather, who was a song leader at a local church. Cash's mother took in teachers' laundry to pay for his early singing lessons at $3 a class. Cash recalled his mother's reaction when, as a teenager, Cash's voice broke into a low baritone, revealing a new range.
"God has His hands on you, son," she told him. "Don't ever forget the gift."
His wife June died in May after 35 years of marriage.
Survivors include four daughters from his first marriage, to Vivian Cash from whom he was divorced, singer Rosanne Cash, Kathy, Cindy and Tara; a son from his second marriage, John Carter Cash; two stepdaughters, Carlene and Rosie; and 12 grandchildren.