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He was born into adversity, in 1932, as the fourth of five children of farmers in Kingsland, Ark. For his family, as with others in the Depression-wracked area, cotton was the Cash crop. "We planted cotton in the spring, and we picked it in the fall," says Merline Hall, 77, a childhood friend of the Cash children. "And you used your fingers. There were not any [mechanical] pickers back then. At least, none of us had one." She recalls John as "a good kid" who sang (while his mother Carrie played piano) at the Central Baptist Church. "It was not a false voice," says Hall. "How do you describe it? Let me just say that when he sang, he meant every word he sang. It was the Christian in him."
After high school, Cash worked at an auto plant in Pontiac, Mich., and in 1950 joined the Air Force. He came home, married Vivian Liberto and settled with her in Memphis, Tenn. This was in 1954, and by the next year he had a deal with Sun Records, which had launched Presley's career. Hey, Porter, backed by Cry, Cry, Cry, was his first hit. Around that time, with the help of Phillips and producer Jack Clement, Presley (who would shortly move on to RCA Victor and megastardom) and two other young men, Perkins and Lewis, would create the rockabilly branch of rock 'n' roll.
After Presley's contract was sold to Colonel Tom Parker for $25,000, Perkins had a pop-and-country smash with Blue Suede Shoes, and Lewis followed a year later with the primal boogie Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. On Dec. 4, 1956, Cash joined the rockers, now known as the Million Dollar Quartet, for an impromptu jam session. Astonishingly, Lewis--the all-time most reckless rock 'n' roller, whom Cash flew in to comfort when Lewis nearly died in the '80s--is the last man standing. "You know," he said in sad wonder last week, "I'm the only one left." (Lewis interrupted his Jacksonville, Fla., concert last Friday night to perform the sacred song Vacation in Heaven in Cash's honor.)
In any class portrait, one notices the similarities. But in this group, Cash stood out--not just with his grave voice and lifer's stare, but with the somber production of his songs. The lyrics Cash wrote for his signature hit I Walk the Line express an unexceptional sentiment: because I love you, I behave. But the thumping bass line and Cash's delivery ("I keep my eyes wide open all the time") make the mood part predatory, part paranoid. Even the upbeat love story Ballad of a Teenage Queen has a spooky side; it sounds as if it's beamed from the bottom of the well of loneliness. Phillips used acoustical reverbs on many Sun productions, but Cash hardly needed it. His voice was its own eerie echo chamber. "His voice was painful, it emoted so much ache and realness," says country star Tim McGraw, who, with his wife Faith Hill, forms a new-generation Cash-Carter duo. "There wasn't anything unreal when you heard Johnny Cash. Faith said today, 'He's the only man in black who can walk straight through the Pearly Gates.'"