Though Patti Smith called him “the moral compass of country music”, J.R. “Johnny” Cash mastered many genres and was considered a bellwether of credibility remaining cool into the twilight of his career. Like his contemporary Elvis Presley, Cash came from a tradition of gospel music when he arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, in the early-1950s looking for a recording contract. Sun Records chief Sam Phillips told Cash to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can record”. In 1956, his breakthrough single I Walk the Line went to No.1, charted for 43 weeks and sold over two million copies.
Cash was the antithesis of the hokey, corny Country & Western singer in cowboy boots, Stetson and rhinestone lapels. Dressed head-to-toe in black with a slick quiff and piercing stare, Cash delivered equally dark ballads with his deep bass-baritone voice and guitar. The “Man in Black” was the outlaw, the champion of the dispossessed and the outsider. Two of his most successful live albums, At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, were recorded before audiences of felons. His only adornment was a 14ct yellow-gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual that sold at Sotheby’s in 2004 for $7,200.