(This story ran on Page 15, in the Living section, of the New Haven Register Tuesday, Nov. 3, 1992. It was the preview to a scheduled show that Thursday at Toad’s Place in New Haven by Johnny Cash. He was to have performed a couple of songs with Yale’s famed Whiffenpoofs, whose longtime home, the supper club Mory’s, stands next to Toad’s. Unfortunately, the shows were canceled, but I did get to see him that Saturday, sans Whiffs, at the Garde Arts Center in New London.
This tour came at the low point of his recording career. His late-’80s albums for Mercury went nowhere and he seemed to have fizzled out, and was trying to figure his next move. A year and a half later, he shocked us with the stark simplicity of the first of his Rick Rubin albums, which re-established him for good and sustained him the rest of his life.
Johnny called me one morning a few days before, just before he left for the funeral of his longtime agent, who died the same day as Johnny’s good buddy Roger Miller. I did apologize right off and tell him I felt badly that he called me at such a trying time. His response, in that voice: “Well, you got me.” I was eternally grateful that he took time to talk to a stranger, especially given the circumstances.)
By Fran Fried, Register Entertainment Editor
This is the type of trivia question that starts bar arguments: What was the first song Johnny Cash ever sang in public?
“Hey Porter”? “I Walk the Line”? Some Hank Williams number? A hymn? Don’t knock yourself out. You will never guess; I guarantee it. So let the man tell you himself:
“The first song I ever sang in public, in front of a large audience, was at commencement exercises at my high school when I was in 11th grade. It was ‘The Whiffenpoof Song,’“ he said last week.
Of all the songs.
Thus, Cash, on his return visit to Toad’s Thursday night — he played there in July 1990 — will open his new tour by singing at least that song on stage with another American musical institution — Yale’s Whiffenpoofs.
They’ll sing “The Whiffenpoof Song” and Cash’s timeless “Ring of Fire” at the second show, scheduled to start at 10:30. Whether they perform more depends on how quickly Cash can make it up to New Haven from Nashville after Wednesday’s memorial service for old friend Roger Miller.
Cash said Country Music magazine editor Russ Bernard, a Yale alumnus, was the one who lined up this seemingly unlikeliest of musical pairings.
“He called me up and said ‘You’re playing Toad’s, at Yale. Mory’s … (is next door),’ “ Cash said from Los Angeles, where he was preparing for the funeral of his agent, Marty Klein. “I said ‘You mean as in “From the tables at Mory’s to the place where Louie dwells?”‘
“He sent me a brochure on (the Whiffenpoofs). They began in 1909 and sang at some of the greatest occasions in history. I realized what a class act they are. To sing with them would be the ultimate kick for me.”
One of the Whiffs, Jody Gold, said the feeling is mutual.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “It’s really funny in a way. I don’t think I know too many people who listen to his music, but he’s a legend. Combining our kind of music with his is incredible.”
Whiffenpoofs aside, this is a period of returning to roots for Cash. He’s about to re-enter the recording studio, and save for a duet with wife June Carter Cash on Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life,” he plans to turn the clock back musically to 1955 – to the pre-country rockabilly days with the Tennessee Two, when he recorded for Sam Phillips at Sun Records.
This is a man whose multi-million-selling albums pre-date the much-hyped Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus by over two decades; in 1969 — at the heyday of the smash hit “A Boy Named Sue” and the “Live at San Quentin” album, Variety magazine estimated he was bringing in a quarter of the revenues at Columbia Records, the world’s largest label.
Yet Cash isn’t sure where he belongs in the scheme of present-day country music, with much of it sounding like adult top 40 with pedal steel. But he said he does like the idea of this latest country resurgence.
“I don’t know where I fit in,” he said. “But I’m gonna do the things I always have. I’m not gonna sound like anybody else.”
As if anyone will mistake one of the most recognizable voices in the English-speaking world for anyone else.
Back when he started this 37-year circle, Cash had a decidedly narrower view of fame: “Back then, my idea of stardom was to get to sing on the radio. I never thought past the range of the broadcasting stations in Memphis. Then one day I was turning the knob on my radio and heard my record (his first, “Hey Porter”/”Cry Cry Cry”) on a station in Shreveport, La. I couldn’t believe it.”
He’s a much smarter man than the first time around, having survived the pratfalls of drinking and drugs, finding the Lord, and becoming a beloved public figure.
And if the circle needed to close any tighter, the deaths of Miller and Klein, both on Oct. 25, have made Cash, who turned 60 Feb. 26, reflect a little more deeply about his own mortality.
“I get up every morning thinking just for today, because (life’s) so fleeting,” he said. “Everyone knew Roger’s time was coming (he had throat cancer), but my agent died suddenly of a massive heart attack. He was only 51 years old. It gave me reason for deep thought.”
Event: Johnny Cash Times & Places: 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Toad’s Place, 300 York St., New Haven; 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Garde Arts Center, 329 State St., New London Tickets: Toad’s, $20 plus tax; Garde, $30-$18 Info: 624-TOAD (Toad’s); 444-7373 (Garde)