Illustrated biography celebrates life of Johnny Cash through rare photos

Johnny Cash Sony Music Archives/Life
A rare image of country star Johnny Cash from the new illustrated biography "LIFE Unseen: Johnny Cash"

August marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Johnny Cash and a new illustrated biography"LIFE Unseen: Johnny Cash" and accompanying music collection "LIFE Unheard: Johnny Cash" each set out to celebrate the life of the country legend. Here is an excerpt.

Introduction: Opening the Treasure Chest

Ten years ago, one of American music's greatest-ever families lost, within months, its two most famous members when Valerie June Carter Cash died at age 73 on May 15, 2003, followed on September 12 by her husband, John, who was 71. After the mourning, the family house was sold and many personal effects were stored or claimed by the children: musical instruments, unfinished songs, unknown recordings, photographs and memories. In the intervening decade, bits and pieces of this have seen the light of day, and "new" Johnny Cash music has been released. much of it is wonderful; certainly we here at LIFE who had been in touch with both John and June through the years for stories we were working on, enjoyed hearing it. We were pleased that the record labels with which Johnny Cash had been affiliated were finding this material, cleaning it up and sharing it with the world. 

Principal among those labels was Sony Music Entertainment, which in 1988 acquired Columbia Records, John's home base for the bulk of his career. We were talking with out friends at Sony one day and a suggestion was made: "You folks really ought to see our photo archives. We've got thousands of pictures — Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett, all sorts of folks who were and are on our labels, including Columbia. We've got Johnny Cash."

Johnny Cash Life/Sony Music Archives

If we were excited when we heard that, we grew more so when we visited the quiet room in midtown Manhattan and began going through the meticulously cataloged files. Here was John with the children, here were the family reunions and weddings. Here were the behind-the-scenes shots from the prison concerts and studio sessions. Here were the outtakes from the photo shoots from album covers. Here was the house in California, and a wealth of color photography from the legendary lake house in Hendersonville, Tennessee. The phrase treasure trove is overused. But this was the very definition of a treasure trove.

We continued to talk with our friends at Sony, and a new line of LIFE books was imagined — the first of which you hold in your hands. LIFE Unseen will present some of the world's biggest stars as you've never known them. Choosing from among the best never-seen or rarely-seen pictures — many of them intimate phographs made in the quiet moments but which served no commercial purpose at the time — we will assemble illustrated biographies that are indispensable additions to any fan's library. You may own other Johnny Cash books, but you don't have this one — until now.

Almost as soon as LIFE's editors started sifting through the Sony archive, we realized that we had to go further to produce something that wasn't simply a scrapbook but was, in fact, truly special: the whole big picture. Sony owned copies of some images you certainly do know: the famous silhouette shot from the cover of the classic At San Quentin album, for instance. We knew we needed to include such photography, and the Million Dollar Quartet picture from Sun Studio in Memphis, to keep the story flowing. There were clues in the archive: credit lines of talented photographers known to us for decades. And so, for instance, we approached the folks at Him Marshall Photography, and sure enough, they found the John and Bob Dylan shot that we knew had to exist somewhere. We went to the House of Cash and obtained some of the family's material; and to fill out the early, pre-Columbia years, we found a collection at Arkansas State University. So, yes: There is material here that has been published before. But even so, most of what you encounter will be new to you — fresh and alive. 

How can we be so confident of that? Because we had one more idea: Let's show all of this to John's eldest child, the acclaimed singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, and John and June's son, the award-winning musician and producer John Carter Cash, and see what they think. Let's ask if they were surprised or moved. What good times or painful times were rekindled by these pictures from the vault? We had a fine conversation with Rosanne on a Saturday morning in spring, and we're sure of two things: You will enjoy her reminiscences, which begin on the page immediately following; and you're going to be surprised by these pictures. If she was, how can you not be? And John Carter sent along his memories as well, whcih appear in places throughout the book. He also helped us sort out the cast of characters at the "guitar pull" on pages 116-117. Roy! Kris! Jack Palence!

The folks at Sony clearly got us thinking actively, and apparently we got them thinking as well. The publication of this first LIFE Unseen book coincides with their release of the new album, Unheard Johnny Cash: yet more discoveries and rarities from a music archive that is, if anything, even richer than this photographic record. "Photographic record" sounds prosaic. Call it, instead, a treasure trove — a treasure trove that, until now, was carefully kept under wraps in New York City. We're glad we found it. We think you will be, too.

Excerpted from "LIFE Unseen: Johnny Cash" published by Life,featuring material from the Sony Music archives. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.