Reader's Digest magazine used to have a section called something like “My Most Unforgettable Character.”
For me, that's a tough one. Over the course of my career as an entertainer and a broadcaster I've met, worked with, interviewed or otherwise encountered literally hundreds of people who would qualify. But if I had to pick the person who just flat-footed floored me the most, it would probably be Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash was well on his way to becoming one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century when I first became aware of his music in the late 1950s and early '60s. His first recordings at Sun Records, “Hey Porter” and "Cry, Cry, Cry,” were released the same year I was born, so I very much grew up with Johnny Cash's musical career.
By the time I was ten years old, I knew all the words to all the Cash classics – “Ring of Fire,” “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Don't Take Your Guns to Town,” “Understand Your Man,” “Tennessee Flat Top Box” and so many others. They were the first tunes I learned to play on my guitar.
I was a big fan of the color black in those days. I still am. My favorite TV characters were the ones who wore black – Paladin, Adam Cartwright. Is it any wonder that the most prominent “Man in Black” should be one of my idols?
Needless to say, I wasn't considered very “cool” in high school, where most of my peers were digging the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. When I graduated, I added the “Any Old Wind That Blows” album to my growing collection as kind of a graduation present to myself.
Fast forward about fifteen years. Johnny Cash hadn't cracked the Top Ten in almost a decade. His version of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” from the 1979 “Silver” album made it to #2 on the charts and only four of his next forty single releases even made it into the Top 40. Returning to his gospel roots, he was doing a lot of shows in churches and small venues across the country. It was at one such venue that I had an opportunity to interview the musical icon of my youth.
I was hanging out in a room backstage, waiting for “the man.” By now this was pretty much a “ho-hum” routine that I had gone through many times before. As an actor and entertainer, I was already acquainted with more than a few “celebrities,” and as a broadcaster and talk show host I had conducted interviews like this one with dozens of others.
But this was different. This was Johnny Cash! I mean, I used to comb my hair like his when I was a kid! I knew all the words to all of his songs and I tried to pitch my voice and inflections to match his when I sang them. I'm not ordinarily starstruck, but this was no ordinary star!
There were numerous members of Johnny's troupe bustling around preparing for the show. June Carter wandered in and out a few times, sometimes accompanied by her sister, Anita, and sometimes by her up-and-coming daughter, Carlene. (I also interviewed Carlene's daddy, the legendary Carl Smith, a couple of years later.) I was surrounded by stars of various magnitudes. And then came the brightest star in the firmament.
Presence. I'd never experienced such presence before – and I haven't since. He was tall, of course. He was a little older than my childhood memories recalled and that craggy, weathered face had a few more lines and creases. But he was undeniably Johnny Cash. And then he spoke. “Hi. I'm Johnny Cash. Nice to meet you.” Like he had to introduce himself! I might have walked right by the governor or maybe even the Vice-President of the United States without recognizing them, but Johnny Cash certainly needed no introduction.
We chatted briefly about inconsequentials like the weather and the gate for the day's show and we talked about some folks we knew in common. The week's country music Top 10 had just cleared the wires a couple of hours earlier and Johnny's daughter, Roseanne, had charted #1 with a cover of her dad's “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” When I told him the news, his face lit up and he said, “That's great. I don't think I ever made it past number three or four with that one.” (I didn't care to be the one to remind him that the song topped out at #11 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles and #84 on the pop charts back in 1961.) He was obviously delighted and proud and took a minute to pass the news on to June. I was thrilled to have been the one to make his day that way.
Then I set up my equipment and we got down to the interview. And something really strange happened. I blew it. I'm here to tell you that every intelligent thought went straight out of my head and instead of a seen-it-all seasoned professional, Johnny Cash found himself sitting across the table from a blithering idiot. I did the worst interview with my boyhood hero that I had ever done with anyone before or since. And I knew it. It was my “captain of the Titanic” moment. The ship was going down and all I could do was go along for the ride.
Johnny was gracious. He was so good. So patient. He had to be thinking, “Who let this guy loose?” but it never showed. He marched bravely through my amateur hour interview for about fifteen minutes before standing and shaking hands with me and telling white lies about what a pleasure it had been to meet me. I watched as his tall, broad-shouldered, black-clad frame turned and exited the room and I just quietly slunk out to my seat in the auditorium, thoroughly humbled and humiliated.
Returning to my studio, I did something I had never done before. Determined that Johnny should not suffer from my inability to string together a coherent sentence in his presence (and also not wanting to sound like a total doofus to my audience), I edited myself. This was the dark ages before digital recording, mind you. Editing was done with a razor blade and tape. And I went through the entire ordeal excising my stupid, banal questions. Then, taking Johnny's attempts to answer the most poorly-framed questions he'd probably ever been asked, I recorded myself asking brilliant questions and spliced them in to match his wonderful answers. The edited interview was fabulous and the listeners loved it. (But I kept the original interview as a reminder to myself whenever I felt too cocky.)
Oh, I owned up to it, of course. I did so on the air a few times when retelling the tale and I did so from the stage once when I performed a set of Johnny Cash tunes – including “Tennessee Flat Top Box” – as part of a country tribute show. (I guess all those years of idolizing Johnny paid off; I was standing in line at a video store a couple of days later and a guy behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I sure liked your show the other night. You did a real good Johnny Cash.”)
I continued to idolize Johnny Cash right up 'til the day he died. And I always treasured the few moments I spent with him. More than twenty years and dozens of “celebrities” later, he remains the most memorable and impressive person I've ever encountered. He totally blew me away in a manner that no one else ever has. There are stars, there are legends, and then there's Johnny Cash.