WHEN SAM PHILLIPS, THE LEGENDARY FOUNDER of Sun Records and godfather of Rock 'n Roll , died back in August, a memorial tribute was arranged for him at Memphis' brand-new Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. Jack Clement, a producer famous in both Memphis and Nashville and an intimate of Johnny Cash's in both places, began his tribute to Sam by playing a duet with country star Marty Stuart of Cash's "Ballad of a Teen-Age Queen," a vintage '50s effort done by "Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two" for Phillips at Sun.
"Sam hated it," joked Clement, but as he and Stuart did their reenactment of the homespun melody with its deceptively simple lyrics, direct in the way of an Emily Dickinson poem, it was easy to tell that Phillips had to have loved it -- loved it, in fact, for the same reason the whole world would eventually come to love Johnny Cash.
"Johnny didn't like the sparkley, rhinestone stuff. That's one reason he dressed as 'the man in black.' He was more poetic, a simple, down-to-earth kind of guy," remembers Roland Janes the brilliant session guitarist who worked at Sun when Cash, a shy Air Force veteran from Dyess, Arkansas, was getting his start in the wake of Elvis Presley's first success. "In those early days, he wanted to be a gospel singer, then he thought of himself as Country and Western. He didn't really think of himself as rock and roll. The world determined that for him."
At the time of the Phillips tribute, Cash, who was in ill health himself, was still mourning the death in May of his wife June Carter Cash. He couldn't come to the Memphis memorial, but he recorded his personal reminiscences of Phillips and gave the CD to Clement, who made sure it got played on stage in Memphis. The unaffected Everyman basso that America had loved through several decades of recording, a regular TV show, and a comeback or two enthralled the audience as Cash recollected his awe at getting started at Sun.
"I got in that 1954 Plymouth Savoy, and, as fast as it would go, I went downtown to 706 Union Avenue, to Sun Records," Cash recalled. There, Phillips handed him a single copy of the "bright shiny vinyl record with that bright shiny golden Sun label on it, with my name in black. It stood out for all the world to see. It said 'Johnny Cash.' It was the first time I ever saw my name in print. ' Nobody called me Johnny except my wife, and I had no idea that sam was going to put 'Johnny' on the record. I thought it was going to be John, but that was all right. Just so it was my record."
Knox Phillips, the legend's son and a producer in his own right, recalls, "Sam thought he needed a more accessible name, I think. All those guys were frightened to death in the early days. Sam's whole thing was in giving people who were shy like Johnny a voice. He just made sure the name on the label would help Johnny connect."
Cash took the precious possession with his new public name on it down to disk jockey Bob Neal of WMPS-AM , "and I told him, 'This is new. It just came out today, and I wonder if you would play it. I sure would like to hear it on the radio." Neal played "Hey, Porter" on the air and then, before he could flip it and play "Cry, Cry, Cry," he dropped it and broke it. 'It broke into a million pieces," said Cash. "My heart dropped. I thught my music career was over."
Later he went back over to the Sun studio and told Sam Phillips what had happened. Phillips reassured the stricken young artist. "Don't worry about it," he said, and then opened up a box of recordings, showing him there were 24 left out of that original component of 25. Who so many? Cash asked. "Becuase I'm going to send these to disc jockeys all over the place. Shreveport, Mobile, Nashville," Phillips answered. Cash said "I told him 'I won't be singing in all those cities.' And he said, 'Yes, you will.'" As, of course, he did. Those and a few other places.
FOR JOHNNY CASH DID CONNECT, unmistakably. After Sam Phillips' death, Cash and Knox Phillips had a private moment on the telephone; Cash said, "I loved your daddy. He taught me the importance of being an individual."
Or as Knox Phillips would put it, "Sam's message was, you can go out there and be yourself and be confident and be proud. Without Sam those guys would have been more prone to be followers. He gave them the confidence to stand up on that stage and be leaders. Of all the Sun artists, " including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Charlie Rich, among many others, "Johnny best exemplified in deeds and words what was great about being a true individual. There's no finer accomplishment than that. For me, growing up with all these guys. his artistic legacy exceeded only by his heart, his spirtit and his honor."
By the time Cash got a national TV show, in the early '70s, as one of the first universally accepted exemplars of down-home Southern-style music, some of his first musical stablemates were down on their luck. But, as Knox Phillips remember, "Johnny always carried people who needed help . He hired Carl Perkins as part of his band and put him on his TV show, out of love. He did the same for Jerry Lee [Lewis]. No matter how down someone might be or how negative his reputation had become, Johnny always had a 'come-on-in-and-help-yourself' attitude for them. That was even more special than his artistic contributions, which were considerable."
JACK CLEMENT IS UNIQUE IN HAVING KNOWN -- and worked with -- the late Johnny Cash all the way from the 23-year-old's first recording efforts at Memphis' Sun Record company in the '50s to the last several weeks, when Clement, now a fixture of the Nashville music scene, assisted Cash in his most recent tracks, yet to be released.
"Some of those are standards like 'San Antonio Rose,' there was a Sheryl Crow song or two, and there were some Hawaiian songs. There were a lot of other things. As was always the case with him, there's a lot of range. He did one song, 'Aloha,' mostly in Hawaiian," says Clement, who played the dobro, a naive Hawaiian instrument on some of the recordings.
When he was doing his last musical alohas -- for a boxed set as well as a new album, says Clement -- Cash was largely confined to a wheel chair, and the sessions were conducted both in Cash's Nashville home and in his private studio adjacent to the property. "The label had a special doctor working with him. He could walk a little bit, and he could see a little. He was almost blind there for a while. He knew he was old and weak."
For all that, "He sounded good. Not as strong as he once was, but good. "
Cash's eclecticism was one of this hallmarks, of course, and it was typical that, this late in both his life and his career, he was willing to try so much new material. As other intimates of the late singer have observed, Clement noted the universality of Cash's appeal, across normal bundaries of age, gender, race, and class.
"He never ran out of stuff to record. Even as a raw young man at sun, he was always singing a lot of stuff that he never got around to recording -- the Whiffenpoof song, or the Inkspots, or the Mills Brothers." His interest in Hawaiian music may date from a four-day visit to the islands he made with Clement some years ago on the way to some concert dates they did together in Australia.
"He was one of the most famous people in the world, an international icon, a living logo," says Clement. "He's just big. He had so many song, so many hits, so many ups and down. But even in rough circumstances, he was never a somber kind of guy at all. I remember back at Sun one time, he'd been recording so long and so hard and drinking so much coffee he said, "You know, I think I got a little too much blood in my coffee system."
Clement was with Cash back in May when the singer -- himself afflicted with the diabetes whose complications were a major cause of his death -- had temporarily moved to a hotel room adjoining the hospital where Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, was dying. Said Clement, "That was hard on him, but he handled it pretty smooth. He was making plans to do more recording of some brand-new stuff all the while he was attending on her."
In the end, as Clement noted, it was only Cash's own death that could finally bring to a halt the debilitated 71-year-old artist's determination to keep on moving and innovating with his art.
KNOX PHILLIPS AND JANES REMEMBER Cash's aesthetic ambitions as being conspicuous from the very start. As Phillips remembers, "Johnny probably used his voice more effectively than any other Sun guy. Most of them at first -- like Elvis and Jerry Lee --- were song-interpreters. but he was a singer/songwriter, with a heart....I never heard a bad Johnny Cash record. I never heard a bad one that he recorded or that he wrote. Later on in his career, it might have some Nashville suck-ass strings and vanilla added to it, but you can still hear the heart and soul in it that overshadows all the bullshit. He always overshadowed all the bullshit. "
An example of Cash at his best, said Phillips, was the song, "Get Rhythm," whose driving, laconic blues riffs and chorus ("Get rhythm/when you get the blues") underlie a simple tale about a shoeshine boy able to transcend not only bad times but the human condition itself. "When he sang about the cotton leaves in 'Hey, Porter,' you could smell 'em yourself," said Roland Janes. Both he and Knox Phillips refer to the "poetry" in Cash's songs. Phillips recalls the celebrated collaboration between Cash and Bob Dylan in the late '60s Cash also collaborated with U2, and his last comeback, the one that was still going on at the time of his death, had him doing well-regarded covers of such acts as Nine Inch Nails Ð whose song "Hurt" Cash turned into something of a late personal manifesto.
"You could tell his voice was weak and his health was failing, but his message was still here. He was doing songs about drugs and addiction. He was, I think, questioning himself," said Janes of the man who communicated basic American values and also basic American vulnerabilities and had had his own well-documented troubles with drugs.
AS JERRY LEE LEWIS WAS PREPARING to leave his Nesbitt, Miss., home Friday to fly down to Jacksonville, Florida, for a weekend concert, he was told by his manager, J.W. Whitten, that his friend and old Sun Records stablemate, Johnny Cash, had passed.
Lewis was plainly moved, and, after a spell, said quite somberly to Whitten, "You know, I'm the only one left." What he meant, of course, was that the onetime Sun Big Four of himself, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Cash had now winnowed down to just himself -- an on-the-edge type famous for his self-inflicted reckless endangerments. Nobody woulda thunk it.
Lewis stayed absorbed by the subject all day, reminding Whitten of a service performed for beginner Lewis in 1956, when Cash was already a national star. "You know, Johnny gave me my first major tour." Lewis was also an annual performer on the year-end Christmas shows that Cash did for CBS.
When Lewis nearly died some years ago from complications of a stomach ailment, Cash flew in to be at his beside. Lewis had been "devastated" by the death in May of Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, and he was clearly taking Cash's own death very hard.
As Lewis performed Friday night before a sellout crowd at the Florida Theater in Jacksonville, he did something that Whitten, who has been with the performer for several decades, had never seen him do before. He stopped his regular concert midway, announced to the crowd that he wanted to play a song in Cash's honor, then did a version of "Vacation in Heaven," a sacred song that he knew to be a favorite of Cash's.
ÔHE REPRESENTED EVERYBODY,Ó SAID ROLAND JANES. "He had the sound of all ages, all colors."
Another way of putting that was offered by Memphis lawyer Jim Strickland, who was driving home the other day and happened to have Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" playing in his dashboard casette deck. At a red light a car pulled alongside carring some young bloods equipped with one of those thunderous amplifiers pulsing out some hip-hop.
Strickland shrugged and turned up his Cash as high as it would go. The young men in the other car first frowned and then, as they heard the familiar voice of Johhny Cash booming out:
...When I was just a baby,
My Mama told me, "Son,
Always be a good boy,
Don't ever play with guns,"
But I shot a man in Reno,
Just to watch him die,
When I hear that whistle blowin',
I hang my head and cry....
they, too, had to smile.