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Johnny Cash, American icon, dies

Johnny Cash, a country music legend and a founder of rock 'n' roll with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, died yesterday of complications from diabetes. He was 71.

Known worldwide as the "Man in Black" because of his favored stage attire, Mr. Cash was a towering presence in the music industry for almost 60 years, even recently becoming an icon to the MTV generation. He performed for five presidents and was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush.

The baritone-voiced Mr. Cash earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. He has been inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"It would be incomprehensible to imagine what country music would have been like without Johnny Cash," said Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association.

Mr. Cash won 11 Grammy awards, including one this year for best male country performance. He recorded 1,500 songs that can be found on about 500 albums, according to his website.

He was idolized by country acts from Merle Haggard to Emmylou Harris and Alan Jackson and by rockers from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Social Distortion, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

"He defined the poet-outlaw," Crow said. "He gave voice to the hard-working, hard-living man. I look upon him as a man who struggled and found redemption and continued to tell his stories."

It was Mr. Cash's versatility that may be his greatest legacy. Indeed, when he toured regularly and often played Boston's Symphony Hall, his show included old and new country ballads, some '50s rockabilly from his seminal days with Sun Records, gospel songs, patriotic hymns, gunfighter laments, Appalachian mountain singalongs, banjo knee-slappers, and country duets.

"Johnny Cash is everything," fellow Rock Hall of Famer Little Richard once said. "He's rock `n' roll, and he's country. He's rhythm 'n' blues. And he's gospel. He's in all of it, and he's good in all of it."

In concert, Mr. Cash would rock hard on "Folsom Prison Blues" -- he was known for prison songs, though he never served any time there, unlike, say, Merle Haggard. He would play harmonica to the hoedown "Orange Blossom Special," perform a duet with wife June Carter Cash, and then tease the crowd with vaudevillian flair on "A Boy Named Sue."

He would add his political support for underdogs by often performing "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," about a Native American who helped hoist the flag at Iwo Jima in World War II, but came home to an indifferent society that, he said, caused him to become an alcoholic.

Mr. Cash's highest-charting pop single was "A Boy Named Sue," which reached number two in 1969. He also enjoyed top-40 success with "I Walk the Line" (1956), "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" (1958), "Big River" (1958), "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" (1959), "Ring of Fire" (1963), and numerous others, including a cover of "If I Were a Carpenter" (1970) and his last pop hit, "One Piece at the Time" (1976).

This past year, Mr. Cash stunned observers by reaching the youth market through modern-rock airplay of his emotive cover of "Hurt" by the Nine Inch Nails. It not only demonstrated musical open-mindedness, but its video earned seven nominations at the MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 28 (it won one for best cinematography). Mr. Cash was invited to the ceremonies in New York, but was hospitalized that day.

"We're in mourning," Rick Krim, executive vice president of sister station VH1, said yesterday. "I think his video was the most emotionally powerful video I have ever seen. It was like a living effigy. There was a lot of historical footage, and then there he was, sitting around a table looking sickly. But it was mesmerizing."

Mr. Cash's resurgence in the industry began in 1994, when he won a Grammy in the folk category for his CD, "Cash: American Recordings." And it was solidified in 1998, when he won another Grammy for "Unchained," this time for best country album.

Mr. Cash was also the head of a musical dynasty that included daughters Rosanne, a country hitmaker in her own right, and Carlene, a country-rocker who married rock singer Nick Lowe. Rosanne's former husband, Rodney Crowell, is an influential country performer and songwriter.

"I am deeply saddened by the loss of my children's grandfather and my dear friend," Crowell said in a statement yesterday, adding that Mr. Cash was "patriarch to one of the most varied and colorful extended families imaginable."

The son of Southern Baptist sharecroppers, John R. Cash was born Feb. 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Ark., "in a little house surrounded by pine trees, surrounded by cotton fields," he wrote in liner notes for a tribute CD called "Kindred Spirits."

"I lived in Northeast Arkansas in the black Delta land along the Mississippi county line."

Cash never learned to read music. He started singing at age 4, when he accompanied his mother in the house. At age 12, he got his first guitar, and in high school he performed on radio station KLCN in Blytheville, Ark. He moved to Detroit in his late teens before joining the Air Force as a radio operator in Germany.

Mr. Cash then moved to Memphis and worked as an appliance salesman. He went to a radio announcers' school before recording for Sam Phillips's Sun label in 1955. He fronted a trio with the guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, and their first Sun hits were "Cry, Cry, Cry," "Folsom Prison Blues," and "I Walk the Line."

Mr. Cash soon began a 30-year association with Columbia Records. His 1968 live recording, "At Folsom Prison," became his first million-selling album. A year later he became the first country artist to sell out Madison Square Garden.

Mr. Cash also demonstrated his open-mindedness by singing a duet with Bob Dylan ("Girl of the North Country") and writing liner notes for Dylan's crossover country-pop album, "Nashville Skyline."

And in 1969, Mr. Cash was enlisted by ABC-TV to host "The Johnny Cash Show," which had a popular two-year run and featured such guests as Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, and Dylan, who was the first musical guest.

At a televised tribute to Mr. Cash four years ago in New York, Dylan said, "I want to thank you for standing up for me way back when."

A frequent champion of young songwriters, Mr. Cash -- in addition to writing more than 400 of his own songs -- recorded material by Springsteen, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails. His albums in the past decade, with producer Rick Rubin, have helped him cross over to MTV-bred listeners, who got a dose of the Cash mystique in 1994 on "Delia's Gone," a dark murder ballad that became an MTV video hit starring model Kate Moss.

Mr. Cash's baritone, unmistakably chiseled and twang-filled, could wrap itself around just about anything. Mr. Cash even showed up to sing on U2's "Zooropa" album in 1993. U2's Bono noted that he had "the most male voice in Christendom. Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash."

After struggling with amphetamines and barbituates in the mid-'60s, when he spent a year and a half of famously debauched living with fellow maverick Waylon Jennings, Mr. Cash converted to fundamentalist Christianity in the late '60s and turned his life around.

He credited second wife June Carter with the change in lifestyle, but he never became moralistic or preachy about it. Mrs. Cash died last May 15 of heart failure.

Mr. Cash stayed loyal to outlaw country friends such as Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. Together they toured as the Highwaymen and played the Worcester Centrum in 1990 before nearly 11,000 fans. Among his last local appearances were Avalon in 1996 and Harborlights Pavilion in 1997. As a songwriter, Mr. Cash was a bridge between country's traditional roots and the radicalizing dawn of rock 'n' roll. He grew up listening to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. His songwriting also displayed a remarkable range, from the bluntness of "Folsom Prison Blues" to the ultrasensitive numbers "I Still Miss Someone" (with the verse, "I never got over those blues eyes/ I see them everywhere") and "Give My Love to Rose," about meeting a dying ex-con who is trying to get a final message to his wife and son.

Springsteen sang the song at the New York tribute to Mr. Cash four years ago, and it also appears on the "Kindred Spirits" CD.

In recent years, Mr. Cash was mistakenly diagnosed with Shy-Drager Syndrome, a rare form of Parkinson's, when in fact it was autonomic neuropathy, the Associated Press said. But when he went on "Larry King Live" last December, Mr. Cash expressed no bitterness.

"Why should I be bitter? I'm thrilled to death with life," said Mr. Cash, who went on to describe "a golden platter of life laid out there for me. It's been beautiful."

Mr. Cash leaves four daughters from his first marriage, Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. He also leaves a son, John Carter, from his second marriage and two stepdaughters, Carlene and Rosie, in addition to 12 grandchildren.

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