I was eating lunch all by myself at home when I got a text today from my son, Debo, who asked, “Do you know where you were on this date in 1970?” My reply was an obvious, “No, do you?” And sure enough he did. He wrote back, “You were at the White House performing for President Nixon. Give me some memories.” And sure enough he was right. I get that a lot from both my sons. They are great Statler historians and they are always saying to me, “Give me some memories”. I usually don’t think I have much to offer and maybe I don’t on this, but here goes with what I remember.
April 17, 1970- 47 year ago – Memories:
We were right in the heat of the Johnny Cash TV show on ABC. We were regulars on every show; the show was hot and the invitation came from the White House for John and cast to come to D.C and entertain. But it also came with what was said to be a personal request from the President for John to sing “Welfare Cadillac”. This was a novelty hit of the day, long gone and forgotten now, by someone named Guy Drake and I never heard of him before or after this one song. But the lyric was about bilking the welfare system and we knew John was not going to do anything that political at the time even if it was requested personally by the President of the United States. But it was a big national news story for about a week before the appearance and all the country was in suspense as to whether Johnny Cash would sing this political, satiric ditty that Mr. Nixon had requested.
John and June, the Statlers, Carl Perkins, the Carters and The Tennessee Three converged on the White House at 4:30 that afternoon for a rehearsal in the East Room. (The Statlers would perform a number of times by invitation in that same room for future presidents although we had no idea of those coming events at the time.) President Nixon personally served as emcee and introduced the show that night. He was in a particularly good mood as Apollo 13 had just splashed down successfully hours before the show began. He and First Lady Pat sat on the front row and hopefully enjoyed themselves. We never knew for sure because they were very somber and staid people and their faces never really reflected whether they were having a good time or not. It was a rousing good show as I remember it and afterward the Nixons and all the Washington dignitaries there were in a glee telling us how much they enjoyed it. The President even invited the Statlers to his house in San Clemente a couple of years later. He gave us each a pair of Presidential cuff links that I always wear whenever I dress formal.
We did a lot of gospel songs with John that night: “Peace in the Valley”, “Were You There?”, “This Ole House”. We learned from John never to turn from the music you’re comfortable with no matter where you’re playing. It’s your music that has brought you there and you should always be yourself in every situation. Which brings us right back around to “Welfare Cadillac”.
Just as we had predicted when it first came up, he did not sing that song. He never sang that song. And to this day it is still a minor mystery as to who Guy Drake was.
And here’s something else I remember. The audience was full of Congressmen and Governors of the day and familiar faces from the evening news and it was sort of a heady experience to see them all there listening intently as we performed. But the calming effect was three friendly faces from our own comfort level smiling back at us all from the second row. Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter and Archie Campbell. I loved all three of those legends dearly. I should write about each of them one day.
I was sitting here tonight alone with my thoughts, my reverie, my memories, looking back on people and days gone by. Not sure how it happened but I suddenly realized that today is the anniversary of the famous (or is that maybe infamous) San Quentin album. It was the Johnny Cash follow up to the Folsom Prison album and it was recorded on February 24, 1969 – exactly forty-eight (48) years ago today.
We were there for both albums and all the other albums that John cut from ’64-’72. But San Quentin is the one I’m focused on tonight. People always asked how it felt inside the walls and I’m always hard-pressed to be able to give a true and effective answer. It was certainly chilling to have those huge iron gates clang shut behind you every six feet when you first went in. It was a disturbing scent that permeated the building the entire time you were there. You never got used to it and when you finally did get out in the fresh air, you never forgot it or forgot those who couldn’t get away from it. And the faces stayed with you for years. They were hard and desperate faces and even in the meanest and coldest of them you could see a hint of fear. Such a strange and unsettling mixture in the heart and souls of these men. Some were too young and some were too old. And the only word that described them all was sadness.
But this particular day they were loud and boisterous and ready to be entertained. We all sang them hits and gospel songs and the more they yelped the more we sang and the faster the music got. This was the afternoon “A Boy Named Sue” was born. We stood on the side of the stage and watched Carl Perkins and The Tennessee Three play live, a song they had never heard before. We and they laughed throughout every missed chord and rhythm goof. Listen close and you’ll see nothing was ever redone or fixed. All the mistakes stayed on the record just the way it was cut and it became one of the biggest songs of the year. Go figure.
We flew in the night before and rehearsed at the hotel where we were staying. The picture below is of John and June and the Statlers in one of the banquet rooms running through some of the songs for the next day. (A Boy Named Sue was obviously not on that list.)
For all the years we were with the Cash Show (8 ½ to be exact), I emceed all the shows and brought on all the individual acts. I always introduced John until he hit on that “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” classic intro. Every night he would tell me as we stood in the wings waiting for his music to start, he’d say, “Donnie, (he was the only person besides my mother who ever called me Donnie) be sure to tell ‘em how I got that scar.” And he’d run his finger on the side of his face where he had a deep welt from a childhood accident. It was our little joke meaning it was time to go and get this show on the road.
Matter of fact, at the end of the San Quentin album you can hear my 24 year-old-self taking him and all the cast off stage over top of the playoff music.
24 year-old-self? 48 years ago? Where did these numbers come from and could this really be me I’m talking about? This is too much remembering for one night.
Have a good evening. We’ll talk later.
DSR February 24, 2017