Almost every recording artist can cite the first time they heard their song on the radio. Just like in the movie That Thing You Do, the dancing-in-the-street euphoria of the Oneders when their song split the airwaves in Erie, PA, was experienced time and again throughout the 50’s and 60’s for garage bands, singers and pickers alike. Surely the most repeated radio debut story has to be the night Dewey Phillips played “That’s All Right Mama” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” repeatedly on his Red Hot And Blue show on WHBQ. However, instead of doing a victory lap, Elvis Presley hid in the shadows at the Suzore No. 2 Theater. Dewey rang up the Presleys, and mom and dad routed out the reluctant rocker, and ran him to the “magazine floor” of the Chisca Hotel, where Phillips held court. Dewey interviewed Elvis, and the legend was launched.
Presley’s first chance to make teenage girls want to faint, and their teenage boyfriends want to fight, came soon thereafter, opening for a concert at the Overton Park Shell. A couple of days later, the trio of Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black blasted the airwaves together, this time from the Quonset-hut studios of KWEM.
Broadcasting from both Memphis and West Memphis, KWEM already had a proud history of fostering the careers of Mid-South musicians. The bands or singers could get a store or business to buy a quarter-hour of time on the station, providing frequent plugs for that sponsor and giving the musicians unfettered access to promote their talents to the Mid-South listeners. B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Joe Hill Louis did it that way, and parlayed their radio fame into an entrée into recording for Sam Phillips. So did a future inductee into the Country Music, Rock-And-Roll, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.
Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, and raised working the fields of Dyess, Arkansas. The themes of hard times and rugged people were first-hand experiences in Johnny’s life long before they were matched with music in his songs. Nurtured on the gospel music of his upbringing, and the musical influences funneled into his world via the radio, Cash was playing guitar and writing songs even before he left the Delta to join the Air Force.
After leaving the service and getting married, Johnny settled in Memphis. He studied to be a radio announcer at the Keegan School of Broadcasting, and sold appliances. Cash found an outlet for his music, teaming up to form a band with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Johnny talked his boss at Home Equipment Company into sponsoring a weekly radio show on KWEM.
The trek from ether to plastic wasn’t an overnight trip for Johnny Cash. Anytime he would take his demo to Sam Phillips at Sun Records, Sam was too busy. As Phillips tells the story, it was a fairly tipsy Cash waiting on the studio steps one morning who offered Sam the option of taking a listen or taking a licking, and Phillips made the time to hear the tape.
That investment of a few minutes paid off. Johnny Cash was an early success at Sun, finding fertile fields on the country charts with his singles “Cry! Cry! Cry!” and “So Doggone Lonesome” in 1955. The flip side of that one, a song Johnny wrote while stationed in Germany in his Air Force days, was the word picture of penitent suffering and yearning for sunshine and freedom we know as “Folsom Prison Blues”. It would become a huge hit for Cash when the live version, recorded at the prison, was released in the later 60’s.
“I Walk The Line” topped the country charts in 1956, and crossed over to the top 20 on the national pop survey. Johnny would repeat that feat in 1958, recording Sun producer Jack Clement’s song “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen,” and “Guess Things Happen That Way”. However, not enough cash was flowing Johnny’s way at Sun, so he moved a little farther down the line to Columbia records and even greater stardom.