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Johnny Cash: Ring of Fire

American singer Johnny Cash is one of the best-selling artists of all time, with 90 million records being bought by fans all over the world during his 49-year career. He won Grammy Awards and multiple country music awards over almost five decades and achieved worldwide legendary status.

His iconic success led to the country star being inducted into five halls of fame. His first recognition came in 1977, when he became an inductee of the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame. This was followed by the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, followed by two posthumous accolades - entering the Gospel Music Association's Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2013.

Johnny Cash

 

Early life

Born in Arkansas in 1932, he was the fourth of seven children. His father Ray and mother Carrie named him "JR" rather than giving him a traditional Christian name. He had an impoverished childhood, as he worked in cotton fields, along with other family members, from the age of five.

Growing up on a farm during the Great Depression wasn't easy, but the family would sing while they worked. Johnny's childhood inspired many of his songs in later life, such as Five Feet High and Rising, which was said to be about the times when the farm flooded.

When he joined the United States Air Force in 1950, they refused to accept initials as his first name, so he said he was called John. He left the armed forces following his military service in 1954.

 

Music career

After marrying his sweetheart Vivian Liberto on being discharged from the air force, Johnny and his new bride moved to Memphis, where he worked as an appliance salesman to pay the bills. In his spare time, he played with a duo called the Tennessee Two - bassist Marshall Grant and guitarist Luther Perkins.

Eventually, he plucked up the courage to approach well-known producer Sam Phillips and successfully auditioned for a record deal with Sun Records. In 1955, his first single, Hey Porter, was released and was a commercial success in the country charts.

This was the start of his long recording and live touring career. His backing band was the Tennessee Three, comprising Grant and Perkins, who were joined by drummer WS Holland. He released 56 studio albums, 11 gospel albums, 13 collaborations, nine live albums and an amazing 170 singles, including 13 number one hits.

 

Greatest hits

Among his most famous number one singles were I Walk the Line in 1956, Ring of Fire in 1963, A Boy Named Sue in 1969 and Flesh and Blood in 1970. Released in 1955, his signature song was Folsom Prison Blues, which was a number one hit in the USA and Canada. He played it at the start of every live show.

One of his most well-known hits is Ring of Fire, not only because it's such a catchy tune, but also because it's shrouded in a mystery that will forever remain unsolved. Although it has become one of country music's best-loved classic songs, no-one is 100% certain who wrote it.

 

Popular belief is that it was written by singer June Carter, who was to become Cash's second wife in 1966, following his divorce from Vivian. Legend has it, she was inspired to write the song after reading an old poetry book in which love was described as being like a "burning ring of fire."

Written in 1963, it was said to describe the agony June suffered after falling in love with Cash while he was still married to his first wife. It contains lyrics such as, "Love is a burning thing, and it makes a fiery ring."

This implied she felt trapped by her intense love for the star and was in emotional pain because she couldn't have him.

However, Cash's first wife Vivian tells a different version of events. She claimed Cash himself had written Ring of Fire, but let June have the credit for writing it because she needed the money from the royalties and he didn't.

Whatever the true story, the song remains popular and strikes a chord across different cultures, as everyone can relate to feeling the pain of intense love.

 

Lasting legacy

Cash died at the age of 71 in September 2003, as a result of complications caused by his diabetes. He will always be remembered for his deep bass-baritone voice and the distinctive sound of his backing group, which was reminiscent of train-like guitar rhythms. He will also be remembered for his all-black stage outfit, earning him the nickname, "The man in black."

His personality was a mixture of rebelliousness, yet a humble and sombre demeanour. Always leaning towards disadvantaged people in society, his attitude was a result of his impoverished childhood and he became known for giving free prison concerts for the inmates. All his concerts began with the star saying simply, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," before going into his trademark Folsom Prison Blues song.

 

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