For many years, Johnny Cash’s fans remained unaware of the singer’s reason for donning the color that earned him the nickname the Man in Black. It was only when he had his most widespread public forum, the weekly Johnny Cash Show on ABC, that the singer-songwriter chose to address the question with an answer in song form. “Man in Black” was introduced during an episode of Cash’s series just one day after he recorded it on February 16th, 1971, at Nashville’s Columbia Studios.
In a segment called “Johnny Cash on Campus,” which aired the following night in an episode that also included musical appearances from Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and the Dillards, Cash spoke to Vanderbilt University students addressing some of the same thorny issues the song broached — among them the war in Vietnam, poverty and racial inequality. The lyrics explain that the dark garb is Cash’s way of drawing attention to these and other issues, many of which (although they made network suits nervous) were brought up in other episodes of the series. The final episode aired just over a month later, on March 31st.
Although Cash was no longer doing a weekly series, he was certainly still at the peak of his worldwide popularity in 1971. In between an unrelenting touring and recording schedule, with a new baby at home (John Carter Cash was born in December of the previous year) and the summer premiere of his first film A Gunfight with Kirk Douglas, Cash appeared on daytime TV’s popular Mike Douglas Show, alongside James Brown, who was co-hosting with Douglas for the entire week.
When the subject of his wardrobe is addressed, Cash says, “This sounds like just a record plug and it’s not… People were always asking my why I wore black. I’ve worn black basically ever since I’ve been in the music business. But I never did really answer the reporters when they asked that question.”
Cash’s black outfit nearly disappears against the same color backdrop, but the song’s message is clear with lyrics such as “We’re doin’ mighty fine I do suppose, in our streak-o’-lightning cars and fancy clothes/ But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back, up front there ought to be a man in black.”
The “Man in Black” single reached Number Three on the country chart and was the title cut to an album released in May 1971. The LP also featured the Top 20 follow-up “Singin’ in Vietnam Talkin’ Blues,” plus a guest appearance from Cash’s longtime friend, the Rev. Billy Graham.
Late last year, this fertile time period in Cash’s wide-ranging career was recognized with the CD release of a 1971 concert in Demark, also titled Man in Black. Nashville’s Johnny Cash Museum will unveil a new wing as they celebrate what would have been the iconic entertainer’s 84th birthday with a two-day event in downtown Nashville on February 26th and 27th.