Marshall Grant played bass and served as both road manager and stage manager for Johnny Cash from the very beginning days until 1980. Following his career with Johnny Cash, Mr. Grant managed The Statler Brothers until their retirement in 2004.
Marshall Grant is the author of the book I Was There When It Happened: My Life With Johnny Cash (Cumberland House). Marshall Grant talked with us about his life with Johnny Cash.
Q - Mr. Grant how did you remember all the details contained in your book? Did you keep a running diary over the years?
A - No. Most of it come off the top of my head. I had to look up some dates and things like that, but I kept no records over the years. I had access to whatever I needed. Most of it is just embedded in my mind. It just came out with all ease.
Q - That's quite remarkable. Besides Johnny Cash, you were also a manager. You had a lot on your mind.
A - I had very little free time. It was all dedicated to the organization. It was a full-time job, twenty-four hours a day in a lot of cases.
Q - Did Johnny Cash know you were close to publishing this book before he died?
A - No, I don't think so. I didn't discuss it with him. He knew I was writing a book. He never would worry about it because he knew I'd tell the truth about whatever I wrote about. So he never was concerned about what I was going to say.
Q - He never said he was going to write his autobiography, did he?
A - No he didn't. He was in no condition to write it. The writer wrote it for him and he just endorsed it. That's it. He talked to the guy a lot. It was good that he did it when he did it.
Q - What did you think of the movie I Walk The Line? How accurate was that?
A - Well, first of all, it was John's request. I gave the information for the movie. He wanted me to come up and spend time with the writers. For some reason, I can't remember why, I couldn't go up there. So, he asked me if they came down, would I spend some time with them and that's what I did. I spent quite a bit of time with 'em. But at this time, the movie wasn't written or sold. So they were gonna write the movie. It was peddled to Twentieth Century Fox. They bought the movie with the information I had given. They said we'll buy the movie for X amount of dollars, but we'll write it and do it our way. They hired a writer I never met and they just re-wrote the information based on what I had given them.
Q - Did anyone think to make audio recordings of the early rehearsals you had with Luther, Red and Johnny?
A - Well no, we didn't have a recorder. We just didn't have one. It was early years. Besides, we were just three friends that wanted to have some fun and that's exactly what we did. The first thing that was recorded on was KWEM. We had this little radio show, sponsored by the people John worked for at the time. So, it was a fifteen minute show every Saturday. That was the first thing we ever recorded. It's available. It's out. I've heard it two or three times. But we didn't record any of our sessions, no. When you look at it, that's hindsight. We didn't realize what had happened. In our wildest dreams, we didn't think anything like that would ever happen. It was just a part of our life as we went through. Our biggest ambition was maybe hear ourselves on the radio, and we did. Our ambition was fulfilled at that point, but then things started exploding from every corner. In our wildest imagination, we couldn't imagine what happened, what has happened, would happen.
Q - The title of your book is I Was There When It Happened. The "It" you're referring to is success?
A - Well yeah, but the song we all auditioned, as I say in the book, was a Gospel song. That was all we were doing at the time, Gospel songs. John and I were singing as a duet. The first song that we auditioned with Sam (Phillips - Sun Records) was a Gospel song called "I Was There When I Happened And So I Guess I Ought To Know". After I wrote the book, I hadn't thought much about a title. Then when I started thinking about a title, my wife came over to the office one day and said "I've got the perfect title for your book." I said "What is it?" She said "I Was There When I Happened And So I Guess I Ought To Know". And so that was it. I didn't think about it anymore. It was the perfect title for the book. It just fit like a glove and that's what we went with.
Q - The first song Johnny Cash wrote was "Hey Porter". Did he ever tell you before that, that he could write songs?
A - No. John wasn't a songwriter. He was a poet. When we started working on "Hey Porter", that was a poem. When Sam told us we needed; we couldn't do the Gospel stuff; but he said "if you come up with something original, I'll listen to you again." So we got together and took this poem and turned it into a song, the three of us together. Luther wasn't a professional guitar player. I wasn't a professional bass player. John wasn't a professional singer. So this took some time. But in taking the time to put "Hey Porter" together, the sound and the style of Johnny Cash was born at that time. It was born during the process of getting "Hey Porter" ready to go back to Sam with. Here was three people that were friends and we were not musicians. We were like three kids learning to play together. We fed off of one another. Luther learned to play the guitar a little bit. I learned how to play the bass. By the time we got through with "Hey Porter", we not only had our first record, but we had a style and we had the whole thing. We had a song and we had a place to go to record it. That was all just born from our hearts. That's all. A lot of people think we spent ten years creating that boom-chick-a-boom-chick-a-boom sound. It was the first eight bars we played those instruments together that the sound and style was right there, right then. We weren't happy with it, because we really wanted to sound like those Nashville musicians, but thank God we couldn't sound like them. So, we decided at one point, instead of copying those people or trying to copy 'em, just perfect what we had. That was the best move we ever made right there, because that sound and the style of Johnny Cash And The Tennessee Two had a lot to do with the success of Johnny Cash And The Tennessee Two.
Q - How fortunate you were that you had Sam Phillips, who was looking for something original. Perhaps a bigger record company would have wanted to make you in the mold of a Nashville group.
A - Yeah. If we'd have went to Nashville, we'd had to have adapt to their style. There's one thing; Sam did not "discover" us. He didn't discover Elvis. He didn't discover Roy Orbison. He heard something that nobody else could hear. He said "There's something really squirrelly about you guys. If you come up with something original, come back and let me listen to it." And that's when we did "Hey Porter". We wanted to put "Hey Porter" on one side and "I Was There When It Happened" on the other side. He wouldn't do that. He said "No. I can't sell Gospel music. You come up with another song. I might record you." He didn't say I would record you. He said I might record you. So there again, John had another poem, "Cry, Cry, Cry". We put it together and it was a little simpler and by now we could play the instruments pretty good. We put it together in a short period of time, went back up to Sam and recorded. Now in John's autobiography, he says that he auditioned with "Folsom Prison Blues". Absolutely not true. There's a lot of things in that book that is not true. There was no such song as "Folsom Prison Blues" at the time. "Folsom Prison Blues" was a song called "Crescent City Blues" that Gordon Jenkins had written. We took "Crescent City Blues" and changed it over to our style and our words and called it "Folsom Prison Blues". At the time when we first went in there, "Folsom Prison Blues" had never even been heard of. So, that's totally untrue in his book. But I don't think he said that. I think somebody else said it for him. Of course, John's mind was getting bad at the last. I realize that, but some times were embedded in his mind and he knew better than that. I don't think that was his advice.
Q - Why did you guys think to go to Sun Records and Sam Phillips? Your style was nothing like Elvis.
A - Well, when we decided we wanted to get on record, it was after we had been together for quite a while. We kept hearing what we referred to as "this kid" around town. We knew that the record label he was on was in Memphis. We'd heard that. So, we decided we'd look up the label and lo and behold, it was out the back door of where I once worked, Sun Records is. So, when we run it down, it was 706 Union. It actually sets on Marshall Street. It's on the corner of Union and Marshall. By that little brick building. I said "My God I walk by here every day going to lunch and I didn't know this was Sun Records." It had no signs up. I didn't know what was in the building. But we went back there. The reason we went to Sun Records and no other label is because we kept hearing "this kid", whose name was Elvis Presley. It was just the place to go, and that's the reason we did it. Because Elvis was on the label we knew it exists somewhere in Memphis and so we looked it up. And that's how it started.
Q - You had to be a detective in those days, didn't you? Chances are if he did have a Sun Records on the outside of the building, everyone would be knocking on Sam Phillips' door.
A - At that time it was called Memphis Recording. It wasn't Sun. After Elvis got successful, he had a gentleman to design that logo that's on the record, on the 78s, the 45s and extended plays on Sun. He then changed it over from Memphis Recording to Sun Records. But that was about the time he met Elvis.
Q - You and Johnny Cash were doing these Country package tours with Elvis in January of 1956. What was the audience reaction to Elvis like back then?
A - Well, it was incredible. All of the Sun artists worked together. Sam Phillips and Bob Neal put an organization together called Stars Inc. in Memphis and all they did was book the Sun artists, just the Sun artists, nobody else. That put us all on tour together. At one point in '56, we went out on a forty-seven day tour. We didn't stay out there. We'd come home for a day or two and come back sometime. During that period of time when Elvis was just starting, you know, he hadn't exploded yet. Roy Orbison had a record. Carl (Perkins) had a record, but Elvis stood out like a sore thumb. You could actually see this guy grow every day. Every day he got bigger. It was just incredible. Most of the dates was out in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and down in Louisiana...a lot of it down in South Texas. Forty-seven days total. By the end of those forty-seven days it was incredible, Elvis was. We all were growing, but all the attention went to Elvis. All of it. But when we first started, it was a pretty even keel thing. Even though he closed the show, everybody else held their own. By the time the tour was over, it was just Elvis all the way. That's just the way it was. We knew that. We weren't jealous of it. We weren't envious of him or anything else. He was a good guy. We all got along real, real good. We were happy for him 'cause we felt growth and saw growth in ourselves. We fed off of one another on that tour...everybody on that tour. The crowds got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. We all got tremendous exposure. Even Elvis got exposure. That tour helped us all along a lot.
Q - I imagine you would've been traveling the country by station wagon.
A - Station wagon and cars. Just anyway we had. We didn't have an option. We just had to use what we had. Elvis was the same way. He finally got a station wagon in 1956. A big Plymouth station wagon. But we were still riding in cars and that didn't change for a long time for a lot of us. Buses weren't a very popular object in those days. Some of the (Grand Ole) Opry stars like Ernest Tubb, he had a bus. One or two others had a bus. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs had one back in those days. But most everybody traveled by car. That's what we did.
Q - Were the dates far apart?
A - Some of 'em were. Some of 'em were terrible and some of 'em weren't. It was just mixed up. We traveled usually in a convoy. We'd swap around and ride with this group today and that group tomorrow. Elvis was so pesky, nobody didn't want to ride with him, that's 'cause he was always pulling little pranks and pinching you and all that stuff. He was sort of a pesky little person. Loveable as all get out, but he was just a kid. He was like a child. He was a lot of fun to be around. We all loved him. Nobody realized it was gonna turn out for any of us and especially Elvis like it did. I asked Sam Phillips one day when we started up there and Elvis had the one record...well, he had another one out at the time. I asked him, "Sam, what do you think about Elvis? Do you think he will ever be a big, big star?" He said "Well, what do you mean a big, big star?" I said "Somebody like, let's say Ernest Tubb or Eddy Arnold." He said "Oh, no, no. He's got these teenagers running after him right now. They're fickle. They'll probably drop him somewhere along the line. He'll never reach what Eddy Arnold or some of those Country stars are doing." But boy, it wasn't six months before he had already surpassed everyone on the Opry and was still going sky high.
Q - Was this before Colonel Parker entered the picture?
A - Yeah. He was with Bob Neal then. Colonel Parker also managed Hank Snow. So they went on a tour together and by the end of the tour...why at first Hank closed the show. Well, he figured out real quick he didn't want no part of that. It was a quick change around and Elvis closed the show. It was about a fifteen date tour. During that period of time, Colonel Tom got to Vernon, Elvis' dad, and talked him into going with him and that's how all of that happened. They just dropped Bob (Neal) like a cold 'tater. It hurt Bob a lot. Bob was a great guy. A good man. As honest as could be. It was a sad day when Elvis left Bob.
Q - What did Colonel Parker say? "When I met Elvis, he had a million dollars worth of talent. Now he has a million dollars."
A - Well, that was hard for Bob to swallow 'cause Colonel Tom Parker had nothing to do with Elvis' success. He could've spent all of the money he made on Elvis to try to stop him and he couldn't stop him. He was unstoppable. Colonel Tom never did nothing, absolutely nothing to promote Elvis Presley. Held him back if anything. Colonel Tom went with him everywhere he went. Colonel Tom couldn't get a passport to go to Europe, so Elvis never worked a date outside the fifty states. He never went to Wembley Stadium. He never went to Robert Hall in Toronto. Colonel kept him in the fifty states.
Q - You write: "John was a phenomenal entertainer." I've never heard that said of Johnny Cash. I've heard that said of Elvis.
A - We're talking two different styles. There's a lot of phenomenal entertainers out there that don't have to jump up and down like Elvis Presley did, even though he was a great entertainer and had a style of his own. John had so much charisma and Elvis had the charisma. There's people, you can count 'em on one hand; John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. The charisma that they had and the style that all of 'em had. So, you can be a great entertainer and you don't have to run flips on the stage. John could stand flat-footed as Hank Williams did and just wipe the audience out. He mesmerized 'em all and that's what made him a great entertainer. It's not his performance as far as what he did. We did impersonations of Elvis as part of our show, but we just always sing our songs and perform. John had everything that it took. He was a great entertainer. He probably was the greatest entertainer that ever walked on a stage, if you want to exclude everything Elvis did, other than his singing. If Elvis had stood flat-footed and sang, I don't think he would've been near the entertainer John was. But, that's not what he did. So, Elvis would have to go down in history as being the greatest entertainer that ever lived.
Q - You write: "Anyone trying to get into the entertainment business or contemplating taking any kind of illegal drug, should take a long, hard look at what drugs did to Johnny Cash. Take my advice and do as the slogan says. Just Say No." People today are probably taking drugs for recreational use. Johnny Cash was taking uppers and downers to keep up with the grueling one-nighters and the demands of touring, wasn't he?
A - No. Absolutely not. I was on every one of those grueling one night stands that he's on and probably drove him there and looked out after him all night and all day. He would admit to it in a minute. He loved 'em. He absolutely loved 'em. The ones that I mentioned, Gordon Terry gave him. He said many times he had a feeling that night that he's kept searching for again. He never found that feeling again, the first ones that he took. It wasn't the grueling schedule. It absolutely was not, even though it was grueling. It was. But, you don't have to do that. I don't think I said it in my book, but I took every step that he took, I looked out after him. I did everything you could do for a person and until this day, I'm 80 years old now, I've never taken an un-prescribed pill. I've never tasted a drop of alcohol. I've never smoked a cigarette in my life and I've been married to the same lady for 62 years. So, you can do it. You can do it, and that's just how it is.