Country Music Legend Johnny Cash Dies at 71

Published September 12, 2003

| FoxNews.com

Johnny Cash (search), the gravel-voiced icon of American music known worldwide as "The Man in Black," has died at the age of 71.

"Johnny died due to complications from diabetes, which resulted in respiratory failure," said Cash's manager, Lou Robin, in a press release issued by Baptist Hospital in Nashville.

"I hope that friends and fans of Johnny will pray for the Cash family to find comfort during this very difficult time," Robin said.

Cash gained his legendary status by spanning the musical spectrum in country, rock and folk — as his wry lyrics and deadpan delivery earned him the respect of millions of fans and music critics around the globe.

Photo Essay: An American Icon

"More than any single person I can think of, Johnny Cash broadened interest in country music all around the world. He was just a huge star, and became a cultural icon in America," said Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association. "It's extremely sad. He's certainly someone who is irreplaceable in the music business, and in the hearts and minds of many Americans."

Cash's importance still resonates with today's musicians, and he was nominated for seven awards, and won one, at MTV's 2003 Video Music Awards (search) for his heartbreaking rendition of a Nine Inch Nails song, "Hurt." The video was a reflection on mortality that showed his brittle health.

The lyric "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," from his hit song "Folsom Prison Blues" remains one of the most talked about and controversial quotes in recent music history.

He was also nominated for three Country Music Awards, including Album of the Year. The awards are to air Nov. 9.

The release said Cash died at the hospital at 3 a.m. EDT. He was released from Baptist on Wednesday where he had spent two weeks being treated for an unspecified stomach ailment.

"I hope that friends and fans of Johnny will pray for the Cash family to find comfort during this very difficult time," Robin said.

Cash had battled a disease of the nervous system, autonomic neuropathy, and pneumonia in recent years and was once diagnosed with a disease called Shy-Drager's syndrome, a diagnosis that was later deemed to be erroneous.

Dozens of hit records like "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line," and "Sunday Morning Coming Down" defined Cash's persona: a haunted, dignified, resilient spokesman for the working man and downtrodden.

Cash's deeply lined face fit well with his unsteady voice, which was limited in range but used to great effect to sing about prisoners, heartaches, and tales of everyday life. He wrote much of his own material, and was among the first to record the songs of Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson.

"One Piece at a Time" was about an assembly line worker who built a car out of parts stolen from his factory. "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" told of the drunken death of an American Indian soldier who helped raised the American flag at Iwo Jima during World War II, but returned to harsh racism in America.

"A Boy Named Sue," written by Shel Silverstein, was a comical story of a father who gives his son a girl's name to make him tough, and Cash took it to No. 1 in 1969.

Cash said in his 1997 autobiography "Cash" that he tried to speak for "voices that were ignored or even suppressed in the entertainment media, not to mention the political and educational establishments."

His career spanned generations, with each finding something of value in his simple records, many of which used his trademark "boom-chicka-boom" rhythm.

Cash was a peer of Elvis Presley when rock 'n' roll was born in Memphis in the 1950s, and he scored hits like "Cry! Cry! Cry!" during that era. He had a longtime friendship and recorded with Dylan, who has cited Cash as a major influence.

"His influence spread over many generations of different people," said Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger. "I loved him as singer and a writer. I remember years ago a big part of our repertoire was two of my favorite Johnny Cash songs, 'I Walk The Line' and 'Ballad Of A Teenage Queen.'"

Elvis Costello, who once recorded with Cash, called him "a great, great man. ... He made me feel very welcome in his home and I will never forget that."

Country singer Barbara Mandrell recalled his star quality.

"Truly I can only think of two people in my life, where you knew it when they were in the building just by their presence. The air would just get exciting and stimulating and electric even if you couldn't see them. Those two people were Johnny Cash and Billy Graham," she said

He won 11 Grammys — most recently in 2003, when "Give My Love To Rose" earned him honors as best male country vocal performance — and numerous Country Music Association awards. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980 and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.

His second wife, June Carter Cash (search), and daughter Roseanne Cash also were successful singers. June Carter Cash, who co-wrote Cash's hit "Ring of Fire" and partnered with her husband in hits such as "Jackson," died in May 2003.

"It's a sad day in Tennessee, but a great day in Heaven," said Merle Kilgore, best man at their wedding. "The 'Man in Black' is now wearing white as he joins his wife June in the angel band."

Truck driver Bobby Williams of Spokane, Wash., en route from Tennessee to Tampa, Fla., stopped and bowed his head for a moment when he heard Cash had died.

"He was the greatest man ever picked a guitar. He spoke to the American man. He did songs people could understand and relate to," said Williams, who then sang a few lyrics of his favorite Cash recording, "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky."

The late 1960s and '70s were Cash's peak commercial years, and he was host of his own ABC variety show from 1969-71. In later years, he was part of the Highwayman supergroup with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kristofferson.

In the 1990s, he found a new artistic life recording with rap and hard rock producer Rick Rubin on the label American Recordings. And he was back on the charts in with the 2002 album "American IV: the Man Comes Around."

Most recently, Cash was recognized for his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt." He had hoped to attend the MTV Video Music Awards, where the video won for best cinematography, but he was hospitalized.

He also wrote books including two autobiographies, and acted in films and television shows.

In his 1971 hit "Man in Black," Cash said his black clothing symbolized the downtrodden people in the world. Cash had been "The Man in Black" since he joined the Grand Ole Opry at age 25.

"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."

John R. Cash was born Feb. 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Ark., one of seven children. When he was 12, his 14-year-old brother and hero, Jack, died after an accident while sawing oak trees into fence posts. The tragedy had a lasting impact on Cash, and he later pointed to it as a possible reason his music was frequently melancholy.

He worked as a custodian and enlisted in the Air Force, learning guitar while stationed in Germany, before launching his music career after his 1954 discharge.

"All through the Air Force, I was so lonely for those three years," Cash told The Associated Press during a 1996 interview. "If I couldn't have sung all those old country songs, I don't think I could have made it."

Cash launched his career in Memphis, performing on radio station KWEM. He auditioned with Sun Records, ultimately recording the single "Hey Porter," which became a hit.

Sun Records also launched the careers of Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.

"Folsom Prison Blues" went to No. 4 on the country charts in 1956 and featured Cash's most famous couplet: "I shot a man in Reno/ just to watch him die."

Cash recorded theme albums celebrating the railroads and the Old West and decrying the mistreatment of American Indians. Two of his most popular albums were recorded live at prisons. Along the way he notched 14 No. 1 country music hits.

Because of Cash's frequent performances in prisons and his rowdy lifestyle early in his career, many people wrongly thought he had served prison time. He never did, though he battled addictions to pills on and off throughout his life, and was arrested for bringing amphetamine pills in his guitar case across the Mexican border in 1965.

He blamed fame for his vulnerability to drug addiction.

"When I was a kid, I always knew I'd sing on the radio someday. I never thought about fame until it started happening to me," he said in 1988. "Then it was hard to handle. That's why I turned to pills."

He credited June Carter Cash, whom he married in 1968, with helping him stay off drugs, though he had several relapses over the years and was treated at the Betty Ford Center in California in 1984.

June Carter Cash was the daughter of country music great Mother Maybelle Carter, and the mother of singer Carlene Carter, whose father was country singer Carl Smith. Together, June Carter and Cash had one child, John Carter Cash. He is a musician and producer.

Singer Rosanne Cash is Johnny Cash's daughter from his first marriage, to Vivian Liberto. Their other three children are Kathleen, Cindy and Tara. They divorced in 1966.

In March 1998, Cash made headlines when his California-based record company, American Recordings, took out an advertisement in the music trade magazine Billboard. The full-page ad celebrated Cash's 1998 Grammy award for best country album for "Unchained."

The ad showed an enraged-looking Cash in his younger years making an obscene gesture to sarcastically illustrate his thanks to country radio stations and "the country music establishment in Nashville," which he felt had unfairly cast him aside.

Waylon Jennings, a close friend, once said of Cash: "He's been like a brother to me. He's one of the greatest people in the world."

Cash once credited his mother, Carrie Rivers Cash, with encouraging him to pursue a singing career.

"My mother told me to keep on singing, and that kept me working through the cotton fields. She said God has his hand on you. You'll be singing for the world someday."

Cash lived in Hendersonville, Tenn., just outside of Nashville. He also had a home in Jamaica.

Fox News' Mike Hess and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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