Johnny Cash og Saul Holiff backstage at til Canadian National Exhibition i Toronto, 1970. [Foto: Jorgan Halling/Saul Holiff Collection.]

Working for Johnny Cash Was a Nightmare

The untold story of Saul Holiff, Cash’s Canadian manager, who had to deal with the singer at the height of his addiction problems.

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Apr 29 2017, 4:31pm

Johnny Cash og Saul Holiff backstage at til Canadian National Exhibition i Toronto, 1970. [Foto: Jorgan Halling/Saul Holiff Collection.]

The following is an excerpt from The Man Who Carried Cash, an upcoming book about the tumultuous relationship between Johnny Cash and his Canadian manager, Saul Holiff. The book, written by Julie Chadwick (an occasional VICE writer), uses exclusive material found in Holiff's storage locker after his suicide in 2005, which includes audio diaries, hundreds of intimate letters and photos, audiotaped phone calls with Cash and newspaper clippings and press materials. In this excerpt, we come in on Johnny Cash and Saul Holiff in the first few months of 1967. Johnny is in the utter depths of addiction and has become known as Johnny "No Show" Cash among promoters. A previous show in Miami ended before it even began when a strung-out Johnny stumbled out onstage and begged Saul for help in front of the audience.

Three weeks after the disastrous show in Miami, the Johnny Cash Show was scheduled for an extensive two-week tour on the turf of Harry "Hap" Peebles, the biggest promoter in the Midwest. Well-respected as one of the founders of the Country Music Association, he kept busy booking more than six hundred shows a year and set high standards for promotional work. This was not a man to cross. Though generally on good terms, Cash had once clashed with Peebles in 1961 over his incessant and unwanted romantic pursuit of Rose Maddox while on tour. Coming to her defence at a stop in North Dakota, Cash had slammed Peebles up against a wall and told him, "If you ever go near Rose again, I'll kill you." By 1967 the incident seemed to be mostly water under the bridge, but the entire Cash show soon realized they had other problems when they started the tour and, once again, Johnny was nowhere to be found.

"Johnny blew off the first four dates," said Johnny Western. "The story was that Hap Peebles told Saul that Johnny had slipped on the ice in Nashville in front of Columbia Recording Studios, had fallen and cracked four ribs, and the doctor said he not only couldn't travel but he couldn't fly until his ribs were healed up. That was the official story."

However, the true story was a little more complicated. With the divorce from Vivian imminent, Cash desperately wanted to be with June, but she had made it clear she would never marry him unless he overcame his drug addiction for good. At this point it was a hopeless request, as Cash was deeper in it than ever. It was around this time, before the two-week tour, that they got into a bitter argument over the issue, and according to some accounts, June swallowed some of his tranquilizers. Incensed, she then left for the tour, and after some discussion, June, Saul, and likely Marshall decided the cast would do the shows as planned — without Johnny. The primary goal was to fend off a lawsuit, combined with a fear of letting Hap Peebles down, but there was also an element of frustration involved over the lost revenue — this was work, after all.

"We did Fort Smith, Tulsa, and Oklahoma City without Johnny Cash, and then we heard this rumour that Johnny was furious that we were finishing the tour under his name and that he had had a confrontation with Hap," said Western. Cash was indeed incensed, and unleashed his wrath in a letter to June, which she then handed over to Saul.

June Carter, Johnny Cash, and Saul Holiff, backstage in London, Ontario, 1964. [The London Free Press Collection of Photo Negatives, University of Western Ontario Archives]

Johnny viewed the situation as a betrayal, and told June she had effectively turned her back on him when she joined the other members of their troupe to do the shows without him. That act alone had more than repaid him for any wrongs he had done to her, he said. In his mind, he was hurt more by this than she had ever been. It was unfathomable to him. Was she not able to see how in every way he was working to become a better and stronger person? He had personally told her father, Ezra Carter, as much. Ezra was a man he deeply respected and with whom he had quickly bonded through their discussions of books and the nuances of religion. Johnny had told Ezra that he was going to "be the man they all were proud of," and had sincerely meant it. But now … what did this mean from June, exactly? Did she not see what they had as precious and valuable? Was this her way of dropping him? If so, "you need to think of doing it differently," he wrote. "For a long time you have been my future and I was yours," he continued, adding that it was hard to understand why she would potentially toss that future aside, and disregard all they had endured together, for a two-week tour.

As for everyone else, and Saul, there were no words, he said. He needed an explanation from them personally. But if they insisted on continuing the tour without him, they needed to remove his name from any association with it. He also asked June to spare his feelings and be kind enough to not sing their duet with anyone else.

Much of Johnny's wrath was also directed at Hap Peebles, whom he thought needed to be reminded of his place as a local promoter who was primarily contracted to present his show and little else, and who Johnny believed was under no authority to have acted the way he did. Feeling "disgraced, disregarded, disrespected and not believed," he wanted Peebles to be blacklisted. "You saw, and Hap will soon see, what you have done," Johnny finished.

The duet Cash referred to in the letter was the popular section of their show in which he and June bantered, joked, and sang numbers like "It Ain't Me, Babe" and their newest song, "Jackson." Inspired by the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, "Jackson" was written as a back-and-forth between a married couple. It was intimate, funny, and carried a natural chemistry. Part of their show for some time, their recording was released just before the February tour and was a minor hit for the couple when it went to number two on the country charts. It also later formed part of an entire album of duets rather humorously dubbed Carryin' On with Johnny Cash and June Carter.

"We all got backstage and said, 'Johnny's not going to make it for maybe two, three more days. We've got to continue on. Or as June would say, "Press on," so here we go,'" remembered Western. "[Saul] said, 'I want everybody stretched. Western, you're going to emcee the show and so forth, but instead of doing fifteen or eighteen minutes, you do at least twenty, twenty-two minutes.' The Statlers were totally capable of doing a bigger show than they had with Johnny, but they were his backup singers and were billed as part of the Johnny Cash Show. Gordon Terry, everybody, stretched and made the whole show go on."
In the audience at one of those shows was Bob Wootton, a huge Cash fan who taught himself to play guitar just like Luther Perkins. Short on money, he had saved up for some time to buy tickets and travelled to the Tulsa Civic Centre with his wife and their neighbours. "I paid my good money to see Johnny Cash, and he didn't show up.… But I stayed, you know, they had a guy named Johnny Western, and he did his show, he didn't do Johnny Cash's stuff, and I enjoyed it, but I was just so disappointed. I mean, I had gone to see John one other time and I enjoyed the show, but he came this time to the Coliseum and I thought, 'Hey it's gonna be good.' But he didn't show up," said Wootton.

After the troupe managed to complete four shows, with various cancellations in between, Cash suddenly returned to the tour. "It was at the threatening stage, and I guess they had called and called and called and said, 'Either-or you get straight enough to do these shows or there's going to be lawsuits and it's going to be a very, very serious problem,'" said Western.

The latest string of missed dates was definitely worrying, and not just for the obvious reasons. In the latter part of 1966, Saul had painstakingly orchestrated a lucrative deal with Moeller Talent, a major Nashville-based booking outfit, to act as the exclusive agent for booking the Johnny Cash Show into rodeos and fairs the next summer. At a dead end, with Cash's reputation quickly unravelling, Saul had needed Moeller's help for his summer bookings. The deal was of particular importance because it was essentially negotiated out of sheer desperation.

One of the engagements, organized by agency head and former banker W.E. "Lucky" Moeller himself, was dubbed by Saul to be "not only the largest sum of money to ever be received for an individual C & W performance, but twice as large as any figure previously recorded."

In the meantime, unable to find spring work for Cash in the U.S., Saul had resorted to putting up his own money as a promoter and booked him on a seven-show tour of western Canada in April of 1967. However, Johnny would make it only partway through the tour.

"We were in Edmonton and he was on a rampage of pep pills, and he had a Martin, an expensive guitar, very expensive guitar," Saul told author Michael Streissguth. "He was in a darkened room, and he hadn't slept for a couple of days, and he's already missed one of the dates. And they're all my dates that I'd set up because nobody wanted to book him. You know, they couldn't trust that he would be there. He took the guitar and smashed it against the wall. I had said things to provoke him. And I guess he just didn't have the nerve to hit me with the guitar so he hit it against the wall and smashed it."

Saul Holiff and June Carter in the back of a limousine after a show, circa 1962. [Saul Holiff Collection. Photographer unknown.]

It was the end of the line. This time, it would be Saul who would cancel the remaining dates and simply disappear — an action he would learn to perfect over the years. "I had one of the best disappearing acts," he said. "I just felt that there was a dignity involved and I could only go so far, and when I didn't want to go any further, I just left. I don't think I abandoned him. I think he didn't even know where I was. So yes, I did, but we always got back together."

It wasn't only the buyers who were becoming exasperated with Cash's unreliability. The fans were also beginning to see through the facade of his "laryngitis," "broken ribs," and other myriad excuses. Within two weeks of Saul walking off the job in Canada, the Johnny Cash Show arrived for a gig in Waterloo, Iowa. After Cash immediately passed out in the hotel bed, Marshall and June searched his room and flushed all the pills they could find down the toilet. Together they agreed to let him sleep, hoping a solid twelve hours would do him good, and somehow pulled off the show without him. But the fans, once again, were disappointed.

"I was one of the many people who walked out and requested my money back," said audience member Mrs. Ray Kunhtzi, in a letter to the editor following the show. "I really felt very sorry for the rest of the cast. I know they are all capable entertainers, but I also felt justified in asking for a refund. Johnny Cash may be a big name in entertainment, but if he had so little respect for the fans of country music in this town or in any other place he may have failed to appear, then I think he's in the wrong business. I can tell you everyone who asked for their refunds were pretty skeptical about his 'nervous condition.'"

News soon came in from Lucky Moeller about the extra shows, and it wasn't good. Despite his best efforts, he was able to secure only four summer dates for Johnny. Though they were "very sympathetic to the Johnny Cash situation," he said tactfully, they had become aware of just how much that "situation" affected his ability to sell dates to buyers. "I tried very hard this year to sell Johnny on some of these bigger and better fairs and there was always a doubt in the buyer's mind," Moeller wrote. "They wanted to buy Johnny, but they were afraid that he would not show up at the date."

Even as he continued to miss shows, Cash found time to complain about the lack of bookings to Saul, who finally unleashed his mounting frustration. "Moeller has booked only fair dates, as agreed, and after submitting you to every buyer in the business was able to come up with only four dates," Saul said. "Your professional behaviour is totally reprehensible, showing a complete disregard for the rights and feelings of everyone around you."

Of the four dates Moeller had painstakingly managed to secure that summer, Johnny then went on to miss three of them.

"We did our best to convince (the buyers) that he would be there and of course were let down with these three dates, which not only served as an embarrassing situation for us and no doubt we will be hurt next season by trying to place another package with them as an agent," Moeller said. Though they did not harbour ill feelings toward Cash, they did need to respectfully request their lost commission on the eleven thousand dollars in missed dates, he added. At the Missouri State Fair, a crowd of fourteen thousand had waited in the blazing heat on Sunday evening for "No-Show" Cash. Finally, a local couple, R.C. and JoAnn Holmes, scrambled at the last minute and managed to fill in for him onstage. But the organizers of the Illinois State Fair were angry enough about Cash's absence that they decided to sue.

As Saul struggled to mount yet another legal defence on behalf of Cash, the federal government finally launched their own $125,000 lawsuit over the forest fire. And the lawsuit with Stew Carnall continued to rage unsettled. In terms of actual managerial work, as Saul finished up preparations with promoter Mervyn Conn for another major tour of the United Kingdom, he couldn't help but feel overwhelmed. "I am the only booker in show business who sets dates, looks after box office settlements, does all of the surgical repairs on missed dates — which include myriad letters, calls, wires, and meetings, and does it all with the privilege of paying my own costs on the road exclusive of travel. This is unique," he fumed to Johnny. Not only would he now have to arrange for the repayment of Moeller's commission, but he also had to do so knowing he would never receive his own commissions on the shows that Cash blew off. Nor would he be compensated for the days and months of work involved in arranging Cash's divorce, which was now imminent. The final straw came when Cash, beset by financial problems, not only requested that Saul further cut his commission down by 5 percent but also publicly accused him of double-dealing on record sales following a show in Saginaw, Michigan.

"By confronting me on Sunday night about record sales and suggesting, by innuendo, that I had contrived to cut myself in for a third, you managed to embarrass me, humiliate me, demean me, and discredit me — unnecessarily — in front of everyone in the show, not to mention [promoter] Phil Simon and, of course, those associated with him who would be aware of this episode. It placed me in the position of appearing to conspire for a lousy four or five hundred dollars," Saul wrote. Not only was Cash missing as many dates as he was playing at this point, according to Marshall Grant, but also what money he did make was disappearing just as quickly on lavish purchases. "You missed $40,000 worth of dates within one year, plus the additional reimbursement costs," Saul continued. "At a time when financial pressures existed, you added both the Carter Family and Carl Perkins at an approximate extra cost of $70,000 a year. You committed yourself to a $150,000 home, purchased land, a new Cadillac, a new fence, a new bus, antique furniture [and incurred] interior decorating charges."

Though Saul questioned the logic of Cash seeking to relieve his financial burden by cutting his manager's commission (down to 10 percent after talent was deducted from receipts), Saul agreed to it, on one condition — that Cash curtail his own expenditures and, most important, miss no more dates.

That would be a tall order for Cash, who in an attempt to meet his expenses, had incurred two sizable loans from Columbia Records that totalled $125,000, and had secured the down payment for his new home in Hendersonville only when a Columbia executive acted as guarantor on the loan.

Even if he cut the unnecessary expenditures completely, the divorce with Vivian would cost him dearly. After his objection to the divorce was withdrawn on August 30, Vivian was eventually granted half of the income from the music Cash had made while they were married, as well as half their assets, the house in Casitas Springs, $1,000 a month in alimony, and $1,600 per month in child support. Cash was also on the hook for her $6,500 attorney's fee. "You should recall that very little has been set aside for 1967 income taxes, and that a sizable amount must yet be raised to meet them," wrote Cash's lawyer Bruce Thompson. "I feel that it would be wise for you to give immediate attention to these financial matters."

Johnny Cash with a Molson Canadian backstage in London, Ontario, 1958. [Photo courtesy Marilynne Caswell.]

Twisting in the mire of his life, with chaos pressing in on all sides, Cash was sinking. The haggling over finances with Vivian became heated and at one point boiled over regarding his purchase of a new tour bus for $9,600. He explained to her that they needed the bus to haul not only all the members of their entourage around but their baggage and instruments as well. The plan was to keep it at Marshall's and use it only as a business vehicle. It was also worth noting, he added, its use was for his touring, which in turn generated everyone's living expenses, including the alimony and child support. Johnny explained that the cost of the bus would be taken out of their joint funds over the next three months, which remained joint until the new year, and if she objected to that, the outcome would only negatively affect all of their finances, including hers.

It was all too much for Cash, who by this point was barely eating. "I didn't want to die, but I'd given up. I'd accepted the fact that I was killing myself, and I was going to try to enjoy it," he acknowledged. Clearly it wasn't an ideal time to kick his habit; the stress of being sober only drove him deeper and deeper into drugs. The love of June Carter was likely the only bright spot in his life, but the drugs were driving her away now, too.

The struggle to keep Cash alive had become routine for June and Marshall, who mounted an ongoing effort to dispense with Cash's pill supply, chase dealers away, clean up after him, and keep him fed and rested while encouraging him to get clean. But June had finally had enough. Just as it looked like his divorce was to be finalized, she told Johnny that when their current October tour through Michigan and Indiana ended, she was leaving him.

The announcement drove him to the brink of madness. One night after a show at the Morris Civic Auditorium in South Bend, Indiana, he turned in desperation to Saul, his "fixer," the man who always seemed capable of combing out even the most tangled messes. As the tears ran down his furrowed cheeks, Johnny pulled out a pen, and as he began to write, the years of pain he had endured came pouring out.

The Man Who Carried Cash, is published by Dundurn and comes out May 27 in Canada, and June 20 in the US.

Follow Julie Chadwick on Twitter.

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