Though he would go on to have a profound influence on rock-and-roll and country before passing away in 2003, Johnny Cash considered himself first and foremost a gospel singer. That was how he first pitched himself — unsuccessfully — to Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips.
So it was fitting that, no matter how far away from his gospel roots his music may have ultimately taken him, it was in a church that Cash played his first gig, a church in Cooper-Young.
Johnny Cash was better known as J.R. Cash in 1954. Twenty-two years old he was just out of the Air Force when he relocated to Memphis, a short bus ride from his native Dyess, Arkansas. His brother Roy was already here and offered to help Cash get set up with a job.
Also there to meet him when he stepped off the plane was Vivian Liberto, the young beauty Cash had met three years earlier when he was based for a few weeks in San Antonio. Though they had spent less than a month together in three years, Cash was determined to marry Vivian and on August 7th, barely a month after Cash’s discharge they were wed.
By December, Vivian was pregnant. On Summer Avenue, not far from the duplex the newlyweds shared on Tutwiler, Cash worked as an appliance salesman, though if anyone asked he would admit he really wanted to be a singer. Almost as soon as he arrived in Memphis, he hooked up with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. The three started out sitting around Grant’s living room picking old gospel songs, but it soon became apparent that Cash, who emerged naturally as the leader of the trio, had larger ambitions.
While all of this was going on Cash had also started making phone calls to Phillips. The Alabama radio man — whose story is recounted in Peter Guralnick’s expansively titled Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock n’ Roll — How One Man Discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, and How His Tiny Label, Sun Records of Memphis, Revolutionized the World! out this month from Little, Brown and Company — had made a name for himself recording blues, including “Rocket 88,” a single credited to Jackie Brenston that is considered by some to be the first rock-and-roll record.
By 1954, however, Phillips had found his long sought golden goose, a white man who could sing like a black man. Elvis Presley had catapulted Phillips Sun Records label into the stratosphere. It ultimately proved too much for Phillips’ small operation; in 1955 he would sell Presley contract. But in 1954 he was running himself ragged trying to promote Presley and find new talent to feed the appetite for rock records his discovery had created.
Understandably, it took several calls and visits for Cash to reach Phillips, but when he did the producer with the golden ears liked what he heard. That fall, Cash, Perkins, and Grant auditioned for Phillips, who readily agreed to work with them. All that remained now was for the busy producer to find the time.
Ultimately it would be summer of 1955 before the Tennessee Three, as Cash and his bandmates had taken to calling themselves, would record and release their first Sun single. While they waited, Cash toiled on a body of songs that would become American classics and make him a star.
But in the meantime, he needed to eat. So when a neighbor offered him a gig, the group’s first, that December, Cash jumped on it. The show before a ladies group in the basement of Cooper-Young’s Galloway United Methodist Church didn’t actually pay anything, but the guys were eager to get out and play before an audience, any audience.
In his 2006 memoir I Was There When It Happened, Grant, who died in 2011, misremembers the date — he ascribes the gig to 1955, after the release of Cash’s first single, “Hey Porter” b/w “Cry, Cry, Cry” — but otherwise nails the details, including the inauspicious layout of the Galloway church’s basement.
“We drove to the church and entered the building through a door on the southwest side that led to a sort of basement that contained half a dozen small rooms,” he writes. “We went in, and Luther plugged in his little amplifier. We didn’t have a microphone or a public address system or any other equipment. There were about eight or ten women in the room, and by the time we three crowded in there it was completely full.”
According to Cash, even at this very first performance, he was already the Man in Black of legend.
“None of us had any clothes a ‘real’ band would wear, Cash wrote in his own memoir, Cash: Autobiography. “I didn’t own a suit, or even a tie — but each of us did have a black shirt and a pair of blue jeans. So that became our band outfit, and since the folks at the church seemed to like us and musicians are deeply superstitious — if they tell you otherwise, don’t believe them — I suggested we stick with the black.”
It was a short gig before a group of older church ladies, almost the exact opposite of the throngs of teenage girls that were mobbing Cash’s label mate Presley. The trio ran through a number of gospel numbers, naturally, and, in Grant’s telling, even their soon to be hit singles “Hey Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry.” After about 20 minutes the show was over. As they packed up, the men chatted with the women.
“It was just a small church group,” writes Grant. “That’s all it was, but that was the very first public appearance by Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two.”