11 Surprising Facts About Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash in 1966.
Johnny Cash in 1966.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

With his gravelly baritone and colorful lyrics, Johnny Cash became one of the 1960s’ most prolific crossover artists, bridging the gap between country and early rock ‘n’ roll with a moody, bluesy flair. But it wasn’t just his music that captivated audiences everywhere—it was also Cash himself, the especially intense “Man in Black” who struggled with addiction for most of his life and found strength in the arms of his fellow country singer and eventual wife, June Carter Cash. Learn more about Cash’s legendary life and career below.

1. Johnny Cash’s birth name was J.R. Cash.

On February 26, 1932, Ray and Carrie Cash welcomed their fourth of seven children in Kingsland, Arkansas, and simply couldn’t agree on what to name him. Carrie favored “John” or her maiden name, “Rivers,” while Ray wanted to name his new son after himself. As a compromise, they settled on “J.R.,” which technically doesn’t stand for anything. When J.R. enlisted in the Air Force, the recruiter wouldn’t accept initials as a full name, so he changed it to “John R. Cash,” which gave way to the nickname “Johnny.”

2. Johnny Cash's older brother died in a tragic accident.

Cash grew up idolizing his brother, Jack, who was two years his senior. “There was nobody in the world as good and as wise and as strong as my big brother Jack,” Johnny once said. But tragedy struck in May 1944, while Jack was working in his high school’s wood shop. Someone had removed the protective guard from the table saw and switched out its blade for a larger one; when he went to cut a piece of wood, the saw cleaved through his abdomen, and he died from the wound several days later. Johnny, who was just 12 years old at the time, took it upon himself to help dig Jack’s grave.

3. Johnny Cash’s vocal coach advised him to stop taking lessons.

Cash grew up with Gospel songs as his main musical influence and sometimes performed in school talent shows. His mother, who could play the guitar and piano, encouraged her son’s musical predilections, and even scrounged up some money for voice lessons. However, his teacher promptly advised him to quit, worried that any further formal training would alter Cash’s unique way of singing. “Don’t ever take voice lessons again,” she said. “Don’t let me or anyone change how you sing.”

4. Johnny Cash intercepted Soviet radio transmissions during the Korean War.

John R. Cash in the Air Force during the early 1950s.USAMM Studios, YouTube

In 1950, a 19-year-old Cash joined the Air Force and spent three years in Landsberg am Lech, Germany, deciphering messages in Morse code from radio transmissions he intercepted from Soviet Union aircrafts. While there, Cash purchased his first guitar for about $5 and even established his first band—the Landsberg Barbarians, a play on the name of the military base’s newspaper, the Landsberg Bavarian. It was also while in Landsberg that Cash watched the documentary Inside Folsom Prison, which inspired his song “Folsom Prison Blues.”

5. Johnny Cash had four daughters with his first wife, Vivian Liberto.

Cash began a relationship with Vivian Liberto while training at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and the two kept up correspondence throughout Cash’s tour of Germany. They married on August 7, 1954, settled in Memphis, and went on to have four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. But as Cash’s music career took off, his marriage deteriorated—due largely to his long absences, suspected infidelity, and destructive dependence on drugs and alcohol—and Vivian requested a divorce in 1966. It was finalized nearly two years later.

6. Johnny Cash met June Carter at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956.

Cash’s debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956 was an important moment in his career, but it had an even greater effect on his life as a whole. On that night, country singer Carl Smith introduced Cash to his then-wife and fellow performer, June Carter. Cash was instantly smitten, and Carter returned the feeling, later writing that she was captivated by his “black eyes that shone like agates” and impressed by the way he commanded the stage with a “gentle kind of presence.” The pair soon began touring together, and though it’s not clear exactly when their relationship turned romantic, it almost definitely happened while they were still married to other people—Carter married retired football player Edwin “Rip” Nix a year after divorcing Smith in 1956, and they had a daughter, Rosie, before separating in 1966.

“It was not a convenient time for me to fall in love with him, and it was not a convenient time for him to fall in love with me,” Carter told Rolling Stone in 2000. Cash felt the same way. “We hadn’t said ‘I love you.’ We were afraid to say it, because we knew what was going to happen: That eventually we were going to be divorced, and we were going to go through hell. Which we did.”

Cash proposed to Carter in front of 7000 people during a show at Canada’s London Ice House in February 1968. They married in Kentucky a few weeks later, and their union lasted until June’s death in 2003.

7. Johnny Cash became an ordained minister.

Despite his drug abuse and general status as a role model for outlaws, Cash was a devout Christian for most of his life. He and Carter both took Bible study courses at Christian International Bible College in the 1970s, and Cash became an ordained minister around that time, too. He even recorded a nearly 19-hour audio version of the New Testament of the Bible, and was also close friends with Reverend Billy Graham, who encouraged him throughout his spiritual journey.

8. Johnny Cash was once arrested for picking flowers—or so he said.

Cash may never have shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but his reputation for lawlessness wasn’t exactly based on nothing. He was arrested a total of seven times (though he only ever spent a few nights in jail) for crimes like drug possession and reckless driving. Late one night in May 1965, after Cash performed a concert at Mississippi State University, police found him wandering the town of Starkville and arrested him for public drunkenness. Cash protested, claiming that he was just picking flowers, but it was no use—the officers took him to the local jail, where he continued to protest in a very loud, painful way.

“I was screaming, cussing, and kicking at the cell door all night long until I finally broke my big toe,” Cash later wrote. He was released the next morning, and the ordeal inspired his song “Starkville City Jail.” In 2007, the city of Starkville held its first annual Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival to commemorate the incident, and even pardoned Cash during 2008’s event. “Johnny Cash was arrested in seven places,” festival founder Robbie Ward said at the time. “But he only wrote a song about one of those places.”

9. Johnny Cash wrote a novel.

In addition to his two autobiographies—1975’s Man in Black and 1997’s Cash: The Autobiography—the prolific musician also published a 1986 novel called Man in White, which imagines the life and religious transformation of Paul the Apostle. It wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed; Kirkus Reviews wrote that it “barely functions as a novel” and is “strictly for those with the patience of Job, and then some.”

10. Johnny Cash died just months after June Carter Cash.

Johnny and June Carter Cash in 1972.Michael Putland, Getty Images

On May 7, 2003, 73-year-old June Carter Cash slipped into a coma after undergoing heart surgery. She died on May 15, shocking everyone—especially her husband of 35 years. “After June died, life was a struggle for him," Kris Kristofferson, Cash's longtime friend and frequent collaborator, said. “His daughter told me he cried every night."

Cash continued to work through the heartbreak and his own deteriorating physical health, and finished recording his album American V: A Hundred Highways late that summer. He was hospitalized soon after, and passed away from diabetes-related respiratory issues on September 12, 2003, at age 71.

11. There’s a tarantula species named after Johnny Cash.

In 2016, arachnologist Chris Hamilton decided that Johnny Cash would be an especially apt namesake for a newly discovered species of tarantula for two reasons. One, the spiders were found around California’s Folsom State Prison, the setting for Cash’s legendary live album in 1968 (featuring his hit song “Folsom Prison Blues,” of course); and two, because the tarantula was covered in black hair, which reminded Hamilton of the dark clothing that the “Man in Black” so often sported. So he christened the tarantula Aphonopelma johnnycashi. “It immediately fit,” Hamilton told Live Science.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

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11 Facts About House Party for Its 30th Anniversary

Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin in House Party (1990).
Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin in House Party (1990).
New Line Home Video

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the classic coming-of-age comedy House Party. Written and directed by Reginald Hudlin, the movie starred the rap duo Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Martin of Kid ‘n Play as well as many other recognizable names including Martin Lawrence, A.J. Johnson, Tisha Campbell, Full Force, Robin Harris (who passed away just weeks after House Party was released), and the late John Witherspoon.

Centering the Black teenage experience in a way that had not yet made it into the mainstream, this now-classic comedy proved to Hollywood that the growing interest in Black cinema seen in the late 1980s was not just a fad. The film centers Black joy in a way media still continues to struggle with today, yet its universal appeal has endured even 30 years later. Here are some fun facts about the beloved film.

1. The idea for House Party started with a song.

While he was still a student at Harvard University in the early 1980s, Reginald Hudlin came up with the idea for a short film that would eventually morph into the feature-length House Party after listening Luther Vandross’s 1982 hit "Bad Boy/Having a Party."

"At the time, Black music videos weren’t really a thing, so I would come up with a music video in my head to a song," Hudlin told The Ringer about House Party's origins. "I kept thinking about what that would be, and then I thought: 'No, that’s a movie.'"

2. House Party could have starred Will Smith.

Much like the film itself, the casting process for House Party all started with a song. The song in question? DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince's "A Nightmare on My Street." Due to some legal issues that arose around sampling the music from A Nightmare on Elm Street, the rap duo ended up in a deal that put the House Party script in front of them. When the pair ultimately decided to pass on making the movie, it opened the door for Kid 'n Play to take on the project.

3. Kid ‘n Play met at a real-life house party.

On a 2016 episode of OWN’s Where Are They Now?, Play recalled meeting Kid at a party where he saw him rap. Both were in different groups at the time, with Play going by Playboy and Kid going by Kid Coolout. As time went on their groups broke up, leading the pair to team up and shorten their names to Kid and Play (or Kid 'n Play).

4. The Hudlin brothers have a cameo in House Party.

House Party writer/director Reginald Hudlin and his brother Warrington, who is also a producer on the movie, appeared in front of the camera, too. They played the two burglars who get chased out of the house by the dog.

5. House Party featured a Fly Girl.

A.J. Johnson, who played Sharane—BFF to Tisha Campbell’s Sidney—was a Fly Girl on In Living Color. Based on her dance background and her experiences in university, it was Johnson who suggested adding a dance battle to the film, which ultimately became one of the movie's most memorable moments. Johnson even choreographed her and Campbell’s moves.

6. Tisha Campbell and A.J. Johnson can still do the House Party dance.

Speaking of the iconic dance-off: Johnson and Campbell recreated their House Party routine in 2015 as a surprise for Alicia Keys's birthday party, which was House Party-themed.

7. House Party featured one of Martin Lawrence’s first roles.

Martin Lawrence and Christopher Martin in House Party (1990).New Line Home Video

Martin Lawrence had only appeared in one film, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, prior to being cast in House Party. He met his future Martin co-star Tisha Campbell while working on House Party.

8. "Ain't My Type of Hype" is not on the House Party soundtrack.

Full Force's "Ain’t My Type of Hype" was the song playing during the iconic dance-off scene, but it is not actually on the movie's official soundtrack. Full Force, the hip-hop group who also played the film’s villains, released the song after the soundtrack was completed and it ended up being one of their biggest hits.

9. There was a lot of improvisation and collaboration on the House Party set.

Robin Harris in House Party (1990).New Line Home Video

Input was taken from the very talented cast assembled: John Witherspoon and Robin Harris improvised most of their lines, and Full Force rewrote their characters to make them more humorous. "We had rehearsals where we would improvise and freestyle and I would incorporate their ideas into the script," Hudlin told Black Film. "You don’t have people that talented and say, 'Stick to the script.' Particularly [when] you’re making a comedy.”

10. House Party launched a film franchise.

House Party has spawned four sequels—House Party 2 (1991), House Party 3 (1994), House Party 4: Down to the Last Minute (2001), and House Party: Tonight's the Night (2013)—though none of them were directed by Hudlin. Kid 'n Play have appeared in all but one of the sequels.

11. LeBron James is producing an all-new House Party.

Harry How/Getty Images

In 2018, The Hollywood Reporter announced that LeBron James and his producing partner Maverick Carter were planning to create a House Party movie for a new generation. But James was clear that the film wouldn't be a retread.

"This is definitely not a reboot," James said. "It's an entirely new look for a classic movie. Everyone I grew up with loved House Party. To partner with this creative team to bring a new House Party to a new generation is unbelievable." Though there is no word whether Kid 'n Play will be reprising their roles, Carter did say that they were "trying out some ideas for musicians to be cast in and to be a part of the project."