(CNN) — The ‘Man in Black’ died Friday. Johnny Cash was 71. Cash died early Friday of complications from diabetes at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, hospital spokeswoman Nicole Bates said.
Johnny Cash performs with his wife, June Carter.
Perhaps the most widely recognized voice in country music, Cash recorded more than 1,500 songs, which appeared on nearly 500 albums. His career spanned more than four decades with trademark hits like “A Boy Named Sue,” “Folsom Prison Blues, “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line.”
While Cash has long had one of the premiere voices in country music, his success crossed well over onto the pop scene. He had 48 singles on Billboard’s pop charts, rivaling both The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys.
His 10 Grammys include a lifetime achievement award and the 1998 Grammy for country album of the year (“Unchained”). It’s said that more than 100 other recording artists and groups have recorded “I Walk the Line.”
A child of the Depression, J.R. Cash was born February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas. Cash’s parents took advantage of a New Deal farm program, moving their large family to Dyess Colony in northeast Arkansas. There they farmed cotton during the day and sang hymns on the porch at night.
At age 12, Cash was writing poems and songs and setting his sights on a musical career. After high school, he enlisted in the Air Force. The military wouldn’t accept initials, so Cash chose John as his new first name. While stationed in Germany, Cash bought his first guitar and started a band.
When his hitch was over, Cash moved to Memphis where he sold appliances door-to-door while trying to break into the music business. In 1954, he auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, hoping to record some simple gospel songs. Instead, Phillips — who had discovered Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis — pushed Cash toward a more commercial sound.
Cash’s first single, “Hey Porter,” had a disappointing debut. But his follow-up, the 1955 “Cry, Cry, Cry,” drew national attention. “Folsom Prison Blues” went into the Top Five in country singles in 1956, and “I Walk the Line” became Cash’s first No. 1 hit. In 1957, he made his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. And by 1958, he’d published 50 songs, sold more than six million records and moved to the Columbia label.
Through the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Cash continued to have huge hits. “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “I Got Stripes,” “Ring of Fire,” “Understand Your Man” and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” were major hits of the period. He toured worldwide and played free shows at prisons in the United States — he first played San Quentin in 1958 when a young Merle Haggard was in the audience.
Living and working at a hectic pace, Cash became dependent on drugs. They took a toll on his career and ended his first marriage. But by 1967, Cash had overcome his addiction with the help of his singing partner, June Carter. The next year he married Carter and made a triumphant comeback. Carter and Cash had five children.
‘Man in Black’
By the end of the decade, Cash owned the voice of country music. In the fall of 1969, he was considered by many to be the hottest act in the world, even outselling The Beatles. That year, his work accounted for 5 percent of all record sales in the U.S.
“The Johnny Cash Show” aired on ABC TV from 1969 to 1971 and featured guests as diverse as Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Louis Armstrong.
In the 1970s, Cash continued to record, although his work became more progressive and less commercial. Having never given up his fondness for gospel music, Cash co-wrote (with Larry Murray) and produced a film based on the life of Jesus. “The Gospel Road” was released in 1973, with Cash providing narration and Carter in the role of Mary Magdelene.
In his 1971 hit “Man in Black,” Cash said his black clothing symbolized the downtrodden people in the world.
“Everybody was wearing rhinestones, all those sparkle clothes and cowboy boots;” he said in 1986. “I decided to wear a black shirt and pants and see if I could get by with it. I did and I’ve worn black clothes ever since.”
Cash’s 1975 autobiography, also called “Man in Black,” sold 1.3 million copies.
In 1980, at 48, Cash became the Country Music Hall of Fame’s youngest living inductee. He was part of the highly successful Highwaymen quartet with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. When drug problems returned with the use of pain killers, Cash entered the Betty Ford Clinic.
Late in the decade, Cash’s radio popularity was fading — a more contemporary sound was moving into country — and he broke with Columbia. A new contract with Mercury Nashville didn’t reflect his earlier success, but concert performances remained big sellers.
Hall of Fame inductee
In 1992, Cash was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In 1994, he became hot again with the release of the acoustic “American Recordings,” featuring just Cash and his guitar on yet another label, American Records. The album landed him on the pages of Rolling Stone, People and Time.
The singer was given a Kennedy Center Honors award in 1996 and was reported to have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1997. In recent bulletins, he’s been said to have Shy-Drager syndrome, a degenerative nerve disease that attacks the nervous system in much the same way as Parkinson’s disease.
Whether singing about outlaws of the Old West, murder and prison ballads or mountain laments, Cash sang in an unadorned, frank baritone about the plight of the common citizen.
“My roots are in the working man,” Cash told the Music City News in 1987. “I can remember very well how it is to pick cotton 10 hours a day, or to plow, or how to cut wood. I remember it so well because I don’t intend to ever try to do it again.”
Sources: “The Billboard Book of Number One Country Hits,” Tom Roland (Billboard Books, 1991); “Country: The Music and the Musicians,” Country Music Foundation (Abbeville Press, 1994); “Illustrated History of Country Music,” from editors of Country Music Magazine (Times Books,1995); “The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Country Music,” edited by Bob Allen (Blackwell, 1994); “The Comprehensive Country Music Encyclopedia,” Country Music Magazine (Times Books,1994).