As he grew old, Johnny Cash came to resent the Nashville country-music establishment, which all but abandoned him and the other aging “country” artists who had defined the genre to embrace new pop-oriented country artists like Garth Brooks. His late album Unchained (1996) was virtually ignored by the establishment.
However, the album won a Grammy for Best Country Album. Cash and his producers American Recordings posted an advertisement in Billboard Magazine with the above image as a “thank you” to the Nashville country music industry after winning the award. The infamous photo of Cash giving the middle finger to the camera was taken back in 1969 during his San Quentin prison performance.
A tireless advocate for the prison reform, Cash began performing concerts at various prisons starting in the late 1960s, leading to two highly successful live albums, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969). In the latter prison, when Cash performed his prison song “San Quentin” (“I hate every inch of you/May you rot and burn in hell/May your walls fall and may I live to tell”), he nearly caused an uprising. The definitive, iconoclastic image made its way into Cash’s Hollywood biopic, Walk the Line, but the gesture was actually shot during a rehearsal session toward the annoying cameraman, the concert’s official photographer Jim Marshall.
A well-known poster marks the occasion. Or does it? Many of us have seen the cropped version of the above photo which graced the covers of the so-called, “Million Dollar Quartet”-Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Recorded on Tuesday December 4, 1956 in the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, the jam session of the Million Dollar Quartet was totally unplanned.
That morning Perkins came to the studios to cut some new material, including a revamped version of an old blues song, “Matchbox.” Jerry Lee Lewis, still unknown outside Memphis, was asked by the studios to play the piano on the Perkins session. Elvis Presley, a former Sun artist himself dropped by with a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. As Presley listened to the playback of the Perkins’ session, Johnny Cash (who was the first to arrive at Sun Studio that day) decided to join in too.
The studio spotted an opportunity for the publicity and called a local newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The next day, an article was published under the title, “Million Dollar Quartet,” accompanied by a cropped version of the above photo. The image of Marilyn Evans was cropped out of–a practice continued on the subsequent record covers and later posters. Today, it is uncertain whether ‘Marilyn Evans’ existed and whether she was merely a placeholder name for Elvis’ unknown girlfriend that day.
Unlike other women who told (and sold) their story of time with Presley, Evans disappeared from the media spotlight. Her voice, however, can be heard on the recordings from that day as she suggests a song title to the singers. Those present on that historic day claimed that then-19 year old was a showgirl at Las Vegas and dated Elvis only for a few weeks. Perkins, however, insisted that the woman had a different name. The mystery was finally solved only in 2008 with a publication of a Chicago Tribune article.