From Playboy cartoonist to children’s book author (A Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends) to hit songwriter, Shel Silverstein covered a lot of creative ground throughout his life. But he (along with Johnny Cash) reportedly owes one of his biggest successes to the man who created A Christmas Story, the 1983 film based on the stories of author Jean Shepherd. Silverstein and Shepherd were longtime friends, with the former dedicating his Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book, a 1961 collection of irreverent adult humor and drawings to Shepherd, who frequently lamented that growing up with a woman’s name was difficult. Shepherd, in the foreword to one of Silverstein’s books called the Chicago native “the only continuously funny man I have ever known.”
Whether inspired by Shepherd or not, Silverstein’s humor permeated many of the songs he wrote which became pop and country hits, including Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way,” the Irish Rovers’ “The Unicorn” and “The Cover of Rolling Stone,” a Top Ten smash by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. But it was with the rambling tale of a father who walked out on a 3-year-old, leaving the child with nothing but an old guitar, an empty liquor bottle and a name he would have to defend (sometimes violently) his entire life. On a mid-July day in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, our hero finally catches up with the “dirty, mangy dog” who saddled him with the name, as the action unfolds like a scene out of a Quentin Tarantino film, with a severed ear, busted teeth and whole lot of mud, blood and beer. All’s well that ends well, however, as dad explains that the name was his way of ensuring that his son would be tougher since he wouldn’t be around to help him grow up and be tough.
Things ended pretty well for Cash, too, as “A Boy Named Sue” became his biggest pop hit, peaking at Number Two for three weeks, held from the top spot by the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” in the summer of 1969, just as Cash began his two-year stint hosting his variety series on ABC.
The star would first perform “A Boy Named Sue” on The Johnny Cash Show in early September, and reprise it several times throughout the show’s two-season run. He would sing the tune as a duet with guests Bob Hope, Jane Morgan (who recorded the 1970 “answer” record, “A Girl Named Cash”). He also performed it on another ABC series, The Tom Jones Show. It’s fitting that Cash and the song’s writer, Shel Silverstein, would team up on an episode of Cash’s show which first aired on April Fool’s Day, 1970.
Distinguished by his bald head, beard and gravelly voice, Silverstein sits with Cash and talks about his “weird” children’s books, and Cash acknowledges the role “A Boy Named Sue” has played in raising his public profile as an entertainer. As the song begins, the two performers stand and walk to another part of the set, all the while strumming their guitars. Silverstein’s vocals are more shouted than sung, as the two perform a truncated version of the hit, eliminating the final verse with the routinely censored “son of a bitch” (which Cash often censored by recreating the bleep often heard in its place). As Cash exits the stage, Silverstein talks about his close relationship with his own father and performs his poignant “Daddy, What If” which Bobby Bare and his 6-year-old son, Bobby Bare Jr., would later record and perform together, earning a 1974 Grammy nomination. “A Boy Named Sue” won a pair of Grammys for Cash (Best Country Vocal Performance, Male) and Silverstein (Best Country Song), 46 years ago today, on March 11th, 1970, three weeks prior to the airdate of this performance.