11 Years Ago 2 of My Favorites Left Us (Part 2 Johnny Cash)

david carroll BeaverDamUSA.comFlashing back to that sad morning of September 12, 2003, NBC’s “Today Show” and the other network programs had to scramble their lineups, and in a hurry.  John Ritter had died the night before, and then came word that Johnny Cash had passed away in the wee hours of the morning.

Most major news operations have an “obit piece” nearby when a famous person dies.  You can bet that NBC, USA Today, the New York Times and the other big media outlets have someone responsible for making sure they can react quickly when a celebrity passes away.  If that person is elderly, or has been ailing, those pieces are prepared with some urgency.  It might be needed at any moment.  I’d venture a guess that when Anna Nicole Smith, Farrah Fawcett, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson died, their obituary stories were ready to run.  All had either been ill, or known to have personal problems that could adversely affect their chances for a long life.  I’d say obit pieces for Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali are within easy reach.  All have been in poor health for years.  There’s no reason for good journalists to be caught by surprise when that call comes.

Occasionally, you get a shocker:  Princess Diana.  James Gandolfini.  The young star of “Glee,” Cory Monteith.  Going back a few years, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and John Lennon.  The causes of death are various, but all left us too soon, and in some cases, surprisingly sudden.

Johnny Cash’s death was somewhat expected.  He had been in failing health for a number of years.   He hadn’t toured since 1997 due to complications from diabetes and a neurodegenerative disease that robbed him of his strong voice and sure hands.  His wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash had helped care for him, and according to family, watched over him like a mother hen.  While Johnny was recording his late career “American” albums, it was June who made sure that her ailing husband wasn’t overdoing it.  He needed something to do, but not more than he could physically handle.

That’s why the real shocker involving the Cash family occurred on May 15, 2003.  June was in the hospital for heart-valve replacement surgery.  With Johnny’s health problems getting so much attention, June’s condition had received little or no press.  There were complications, and June died following surgery.  Press reports say Johnny was in a wheelchair at his wife’s funeral, “looking somber and composed.”  It’s generally believed Johnny was fading quickly anyway, but June’s sudden death may have accelerated Johnny’s decline.  He died four months later.

I always felt that Johnny had a connection to the Chattanooga area.  He even recorded a song called “Chattanooga City Limit Sign.” He was famously arrested for drug possession in Walker County Georgia in November 1967, while reportedly in a drunken/drugged stupor, looking for Civil War relics, eventually knocking on strangers’ doors.  Sheriff Ralph Jones had a long talk with his prisoner, who later credited him for “turning my life around.”  Around the same time, he was said to have driven to Nickajack Cave in Marion County, Tennessee where he intended to commit suicide.  The incident was captured in song by Gary Allan in “Nickajack Cave.”

As much as I enjoyed Johnny Cash from his Sun Records days in the 1950s, to his Columbia hits of the early 1960s, his “Folsom Prison”/”Boy Named Sue” rebirth and TV show of the late 60s, and the Highwaymen supergroup of legends in the 1980s, the most lingering image will always be the song and video that capped his career: “Hurt,” written and recorded years earlier by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.  The Cash version isn’t easy to watch, even to this day, but is it ever powerful!

Considered by some to be among the best music videos ever made, it was filmed in Cash’s Hendersonville home in October 2002.  By this time, the Man In Black was unable to walk, and legally blind.  You see the once-strapping man in all his trembling frailty, contrasted with photos and videos from his hell-raising younger days.  When it was released in February 2003, the scene that choked me up was when June was looking at her sick husband, with a mixture of love and concern.  When she died in May of that year, the video took on added poignancy.  As is often the case in life, the caretaker did not survive the patient.  In September, Johnny’s heart gave out too.

Johnny’s exit from this life was somewhat gradual, even prolonged by some standards.  But the emotional jolt of this song, this video, and the sad series of events that followed seemed to happen quite rapidly.  It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since we saw the last of Johnny Cash.  According to interviews shortly before his death, he was proud of his final work.  I think he knew he left us something special to remember him by.

There Really Was ‘A Boy Named Sue’

Well my daddy left home when I was three
And he didn’t leave much to Ma and me
Except this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze
Now I don’t blame him because he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Is before he left, he went and named me Sue.

Shel Silverstein wrote those words, and Johnny Cash sang them back in 1969.  You can still hear “A Boy Named Sue” on oldies stations forty-four years later.  When the song came out, Johnny was enjoying a career resurgence.  He’d had his ups and downs since he hit the music scene with fellow rockabilly singers Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley from Sun Records in Memphis.  Mixed in with hits like “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line” were well-publicized run-ins with the law, including a few around Chattanooga.

Johnny Cash with Chattanooga City Commissioner Paul Clark in 1981

Johnny Cash with Chattanooga City Commissioner Paul Clark in 1981

The Man in Black enjoyed a kinship with folks behind bars.  He’d spent a little time in jail himself.  Although his misdeeds were never violent, he sure sounded authentic when he sang, “I shot a man in Reno…just to watch him die…” in “Folsom Prison Blues.”  He had written the song in the early 1950s, and released it in 1955.  Thirteen years later he performed it while recording a live album, where else but Folsom Prison in California.  The song, and the album, were very successful, so a year later he went back to jail (to perform), this time at San Quentin in California.  That’s where “Sue” comes in.

Johnny’s wife June had heard Silverstein perform his novelty song at a “guitar pull” in Nashville, defined as a gathering where songwriters would try out their latest tunes for each other.  Silverstein, best known for his children’s books and cartoons, reportedly had two inspirations for his song.  A friend who happened to be a fellow entertainer was a man named Jean, and Silverstein was familiar with Jean’s frustrations of having a female name.  But the song’s actual namesake is believed to be Tennessee’s own Sue Hicks, a well-known legal figure who had first made a name for himself in 1925 at the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.  He was on the prosecution team, led by William Jennings Bryan.  Hicks later served as a Circuit Court Judge in Tennessee for 22 years. During his career, he tried over 800 murder cases and thousands of others, but admitted he was best known for his unusual first name.  Unlike the tortured “Sue” in the hit song, Judge Hicks said he had a good relationship with his father, who bestowed the name upon him in honor of his mother Susanna, who died shortly after Sue was born.  Judge Sue Hicks died in 1980 in Sweetwater, Tennessee at the age of 84.

Judge Sue Hicks

Judge Sue Hicks

Unlike most hit records of that era, “A Boy Named Sue” had a very loose, unrehearsed feel to it.  It certainly wasn’t overproduced.  If it sounds like the musicians were making it up as they went along, that isn’t too far from the truth.  On the live album version, you can hear Johnny ask guitarist Carl Perkins to hang around for another song or two (including “Sue.”) Sure enough Carl had been given the lyrics only a few hours before, and was asked to “put some chords to this.”  Johnny himself didn’t know the words.  He had never performed the song in front of a microphone.  As you’ll see in the video below, he’s reading the words off a sheet of paper on his music stand, and his eyes rarely leave that paper.  If his reactions, and those of the audience sound real and spontaneous, it’s because they’re all hearing Sue’s story for the very first time!  You’ll also notice the actual live recording is not quite what you’ve heard on the radio all these years.  That bleeped-out expletive was kept away from our innocent ears back in 1969, although now it’s hard to avoid on network TV.  Also, a talented tape editor managed to splice out the word “damn” from the song’s closing line.  All we heard was, “And if I ever have a son…I’m gonna name him…Bill, or George!  Anything but Sue!  I still hate that name!”  It turns out “any thing” wasn’t one word after all.

I busted a chair right across his teeth
And we crashed through the wall and into the street
Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer

This not-so-friendly father and son reunion, “in Gatlinburg, in mid-July” sure paints a picture, doesn’t it?  Shel Silverstein was awfully good at that, selling 14 million books and writing more hit songs, including “Cover of the Rolling Stone” and “Sylvia’s Mother” for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.  “Sue” was the big one though, winning Silverstein a Grammy for Best Country Song, and Cash for Best Male Vocal Performance (1969).  It peaked at #2 on the charts, kept out of the top position by “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones.  (That song may have also included a naughty word or two, but I couldn’t understand what Mick Jagger was saying, then or now.)

What did Judge Sue Hicks get from all this additional notoriety?  Good ol’ Johnny sent him a couple of personally autographed photos: “To Sue, how do you do?”

Of course Judge Hicks is long gone, Silverstein died in 1999, and Johnny left us in 2003.  To borrow a line, I never met ‘em before they died, but if I could, I’d thank them for “the gravel in your guts and the spit in your eye,” and I’d thank June for talking Johnny into performing that song.  As usual, she steered him in the right direction.

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