One Thursday night in September 1954, a teenaged Elvis Presley climbed onto a flatbed truck at the grand opening of Memphis’s newest shopping center and sang his only two released tracks on a loop: “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” In a hundreds-strong crowd dominated by young women, Johnny Cash stood out.
It was the first time the two future legends crossed paths. Cash, then a 22-year-old newcomer to Memphis, was there with his first wife, Vivian. The couple actually met Elvis after the performance and ended up attending his next nightclub gig at his invitation.
By the following fall, Cash and the King had become close friends. Cash signed with Sun Records—Elvis’s label at the time—in October 1954, and opened for Elvis the following August in what Cash described as “the first big concert” of his career. It was such a success that Elvis invited him on tour.
“[Elvis] was 19 years old, and he loved cheeseburgers, girls, and his mother, not necessarily in that order (it was more like his mother, then girls, then cheeseburgers),” Cash wrote in his 1997 autobiography. “Every show I did with him, I never missed the chance to stand in the wings and watch. We all did. He was that charismatic.”
Their trajectories soon diverged. Elvis signed with RCA Records in late 1955, and Cash himself left Sun for Columbia Records a few years later. Apart from one famous jam session with Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in December 1956, released on vinyl as The Million Dollar Quartet in 1981, the two never recorded anything together.
But they did occasionally perform each other’s songs in their own concerts—sometimes even as each other. Cash channeled Elvis for a rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” during an appearance on the NBC country music program Town Hall Party in August 1959. “This is an impersonation of a rock ‘n’ roll singer impersonating Elvis,” he joked to the crowd.
During a midnight show at Las Vegas’s International Hotel (now Westgate Las Vegas) on August 14, 1970, Elvis elicited laughter from the audience by introducing himself as Johnny Cash before singing a brief medley of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” Video footage of that moment seemingly doesn’t exist online, but you can listen to the audio below.