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c. 1957

Johnny Cash becomes The Man in Black

The effect was stark, and startling.

MEMPHIS - 1957: Country singer/songwriter Johnny Cash poses for a portrait in 1957 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In 1957, Johnny Cash (born J.R. Cash, the USAF insisted he change his name from an initial) had become, in pop terms, positively ancient at the age of 25. But he was about to take on a new persona — and clothes to match.

Just three years before, Cash and his wife Vivian moved to Memphis so he could pursue his goal of becoming a radio announcer. He supported himself selling electrical appliances. Cash’s night hustle was to sing with a pair called The Tennessee Two.

And Cash took it upon himself to visit Sun Studios, asking owner Sam Philips outright for a record deal. Philips heard Cash sing his gospel songs and was unimpressed. “Go home and sin” was his (possibly apocryphal) reply. “Then come back with a song I can sell.”

Cash may or may not have gone home and sinned, but within a year, he had recorded and released his first songs with Sun, and found himself with a record on the Country charts. The next one went top five on the same chart. And the next — “I Walk The Line” — was a Country number one, and crossed over to the pop charts. Cash had arrived.

Yet Cash’s presentation was atypical for a music star. Unlike his Sun stable-mate, Elvis Presley, he was not conventionally handsome or pretty. Indeed, he seemed to have the face of a young “old man” (and the older he became the more that face would fit). Combined with his supremely serious bass-baritone voice, here was a man standing outside his time.

Early publicity shots show Cash in white jackets, in an attempt to market him (still in his early twenties) as an idol. It didn’t work. But in 1957, as he became the first Sun artist to record an LP, Cash seemed to take Sam Philips’s words to heart. The photographs show a figure beginning to walk down a much darker path — and with a much darker wardrobe. 

At around this time, Cash had been nicknamed “The Undertaker” by other musicians — ostensibly for his clothing, but also as a function of his overall demeanor. Cash claimed he wore black simply because the clothes were easier to keep clean.

The effect, though, was stark, and startling. As these pictures show, now the whole Cash persona worked as one, and Cash became the quintessential musical outlaw, in both perception and reality.

Merging the two, Cash enshrined himself in song with “The Man in Black,” singing of his costume as a reminder of the downtrodden and poor. But the price he personally would pay was almost too high— multiple arrests, and years of drug addiction, which would remain with him until the last decade of his life.

1956
The Man in White
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
1957
The Fabulous Johnny Cash show
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
1956
Cash performs onstage with his backing band “The Tennessee Two” – bassist Marshall Grant and guitarist Luther Perkins.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
1957
Johnny in the studio
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
1957
Aged only 25
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
1957
Eyes closed
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
1957
A serious mind
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
1957
Cash holds a guitar as his wife Vivian Liberto and daughters, Rosanne Cash and Kathy Cash look on.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
1957
Enter the Man in Black
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
1957
In the studio
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
1957
A portrait in Memphis, Tennessee
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
1957
Cash and Nicotine
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

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