Tomorrow would have been Johnny Cash’s 79th birthday, a historical marker that we usually celebrate by taking out our cowboy boots and pretending to know Carl Perkins. Cash’s legacy is great and varied, but one of his enduring contributions to pop culture was his short-lived but thoroughly awesome stint in television, The Johnny Cash Show . The show lasted a little under two years, but in that time it hosted enough great musical guests to blow most actual festivals out of the water. But are you surprised that the Man in Black had great taste? We didn’t think so. After the jump: Ten amazing performances, from Tammy Wynette to the Staple Singers.
Ray Charles didn’t make it to Cash’s show until near the end of its run, but his performance of “Ring of Fire,” from February of 1970, ranks among the best covers of that song ever. Charles’s gorgeous, silky rendition strips the song of its jangle and swagger, turning it into an instant soul classic.
Derek and the Dominos
From the second season of the show, Johnny Cash introduced a baby-faced Eric Clapton and his band: Derek and the Dominos. There are a lot of great things in this clip aside from the guitar-shredding performance. Namely, Clapton’s fabulously long hair and the Union Jack in the background. It’s hard not to start yelling for “Layla.”
First lady of country — and, honestly, our hearts — Tammy Wynette can belt it out in true country diva style while still seeming fragile. Tammy threw out this fantastic number on the same episode that Ray Charles and Neil Diamond appeared, and still holds her own.
Johnny Cash had a doozy of a first episode. His pilot, which aired in June 1969, featured Cash’s personal musical idol, none other than Bob Dylan. This version of “I Threw It All Away” is one of Dylan’s best, from when he was still a fresh-faced folk revivalist.
Creedence Clearwater Revival
When Cash had Creedence on his show in 1969, they were at the peak of their popularity, in prime “Bad Moon Rising” territory. Part of the joy of this clip is hearing the young group at its zenith of technical prowess and sheer enthusiasm.
Another of Cash’s premiere episode whammies, Joni Mitchell started off her guest segment with an achingly gorgeous version of “California.” But the best was yet to come: Cash and Mitchell’s duet of the standard “Long Black Veil” combines Cash’s croak with Mitchell’s throaty harmonies, a great collaboration between a new folk impresario and a country outlaw.
Grandaddy of Bluegrass Bill Monroe was at the top of his career at the Grand Ole Opry when Cash, an Opry apostate, had him on his show. It’s a fantastic performance but also a gesture of humility from Cash, who idolized Monroe and all his twangin’ ways.
The Staple Singers
Having the Staple Singers on his show took a measure of some genre-crossing courage for Cash. Though gospel and country music hewed close together, it was rare for a soul act and a country act to collaborate. This was the Staple Singers’ second appearance on the show, and they blew it out of the water.
Jazz great Louis Armstrong appeared in the middle of Cash’s season, a mere eight months before his death. Here, he performs the country standard “Blue Yodel #9,” a marvelous crossover between a father of jazz and the father of modern country.
The whimsical and wonderful Shel Silverstein joined the show for a duet of the song that he wrote for Cash: “A Boy Named Sue.” Seeing the beloved children’s author sing along with the Man in Black makes our hearts glad in ways we can’t even describe.