Country Music Legend Johnny Cash Dies

American music icon Johnny Cash died at 3 a.m. ET this morning (Sept. 12) in a Nashville hospital of respiratory failure, stemming from complications from diabetes. He was 71. He had been in ill healt

American music icon Johnny Cash died at 3 a.m. ET this morning (Sept. 12) in a Nashville hospital of respiratory failure, stemming from complications from diabetes. He was 71. He had been in ill health in recent years, and had been hospitalized repeatedly in the months preceding his death. His wife of 35 years, singer June Carter Cash, died at 73 on May 15 following heart surgery.

Cash was one of the top hit-makers in country music history -- he charted 137 singles between 1955 and 2003. A member of the Rock and Roll, Country and Songwriter Halls of Fame, his career saw a renaissance in the 1990s, when producer Rick Rubin introduced him to a new generation of listeners with the spare and haunting "American Recordings" series of albums.

John R. Cash -- later rechristened "Johnny," against his will, by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips -- was born Feb. 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Ark. He grew up in the nearby farming community of Dyess, and as a young man he worked industrial jobs in the South and Detroit.

In the early '50s, as an Air Force radio interceptor stationed in Germany, Cash taught himself to play the guitar. In Memphis after his service ended, Cash married his first wife Vivian, sold appliances door-to-door and formed a band with two auto mechanics: guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant.

In 1955, Cash approached Sun seeking a contract as a gospel artist; Phillips instead asked Cash to provide him with pop material. His resultant first single, "Cry! Cry! Cry!"/"Hey Porter," set the style for most of his succeeding releases on Sun. It featured Cash's cavernously deep vocal, pushed by a "boom-chicka-boom" rhythm and sparse instrumental backing by Perkins and Grant, the Tennessee Two.

Cash notched four No. 1 country singles at Sun, including the indelible "I Walk the Line." But by 1958, clashes with Phillips over money and artistic direction led the singer to sign with Columbia Records. Cash made a near-immediate splash for the label with "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," which went to No. 1 on the country chart in 1959. Other chart-toppers followed: the mariachi-seasoned "Ring of Fire" (co-authored by June Carter of the Carter Family) in 1963 and "Understand Your Man" in 1964.

He cut a number of ambitious concept albums, devoted to religious material ("Hymns," 1959), train songs ("Ride This Train," 1960), the struggles of Native Americans ("Bitter Tears," 1964), and Western songs ("Ballads of the True West," 1965).

As Cash's fame soared, his personal problems multiplied. His addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates escalated, and his live shows became increasingly turbulent; in one notorious incident, he kicked out the Grand Ole Opry's footlights one by one. In 1965, drug agents busted him in El Paso, Texas, as he returned from Mexico with hundreds of pills in his guitar case. The following year, his wife filed for divorce.

After Cash moved to Nashville, June Carter, a member of his touring troupe since the early '60s, helped the singer kick his habit. In 1968 -- a year after Cash and Carter's duet "Jackson" became a No. 2 country hit -- the couple married.

Cash began to hit the peak of his recording career in '68: "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison," a concert set cut at the California penitentiary, went to No. 1 on the country album chart and No. 13 on the pop chart. It spawned a hit remake of his Sun single "Folsom Prison Blues." In 1969, the similarly styled "Johnny Cash at San Quentin" reached No. 1 on both the pop and country album charts; it contained the comic Shel Silverstein collaboration "A Boy Named Sue," a No. 1 country and No. 2 pop smash. His weekly ABC-TV show commenced a popular two-year run that year.

Through the '70s and '80s, Cash settled into the role of the black-clad gray eminence of country music. He would log only four No. 1 country singles between 1970 and 1985, and his albums sounded increasingly unfocused and indifferent, but he remained seemingly ubiquitous.

He maintained a successful, if sporadic, acting career, starring with Kirk Douglas in "A Gunfight" (1971) and making a number of guest appearances on TV movies and dramatic series. He co-wrote, co-produced, scored and narrated the religious feature "The Gospel Road" in 1973. He published the first of two autobiographies, fittingly titled "Man in Black," in 1975 (the second, "Cash," was published in 1997).

Cash united with fellow Sun Records alumni Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins on "The Survivors" for Mercury in 1982, and recorded with the supergroup the Highwaymen (with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson). In 1986, the year he published the historical novel "Man in White," he exited Columbia for an unhappy stretch at Mercury Records.

In 1994, Cash's artistic profile received a last major lift when Rubin cut the singer's acoustic-based, harrowing "American Recordings." That album, and the three other Rubin-produced opuses that followed, emphasized the outlaw aspect of Cash's persona and the darker edges of his music, and found the aging vocalist essaying songs by such unlikely writers as Trent Reznor, Beck and Nick Cave.

None of these autumnal albums was a huge commercial success -- the latest, this year's "American IV: The Man Comes Around," peaked at No. 45 -- but they revitalized his career, brought him new listeners and collected three Grammys for the singer.

But as Cash began to receive fresh acclaim, his health went into precipitous decline. He was hospitalized for a new addiction to painkillers, a nervous-system disorder and pneumonia. Last month, he was forced to miss the MTV Video Music Awards, where he was nominated for six awards for his last video, a cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." The clip won the award for best cinematography.

The "Hurt" video is also up for best single and best music video at the 2003 Country Music Association Awards, to be handed out Nov. 5. "American IV" is up for album of the year, marking Cash's first nomination in that category since 1970. The artist is also nominated in the vocal event category for "Tears in the Holston River" with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

In March 2002, Cash told Billboard, "I would be satisfied, so far as accomplishments, if it all ended now ... It's all about being happy in my work, and knowing that I've done a good job -- that I've done the best job that I could do with what I had to go with at the time."

Cash is survived by daughters Rosanne, Tara, Cindy and Kathy and son John Carter Cash.