Who knew that the Johnny Cash story had a Jewish-Canadian angle?
Cash’s career rose out of two mid-1950s American phenomena: the country music recording scene in the south and the youth explosion known at the time as “rock ‘n’ roll.” These American trends crossed paths with Saul Holiff, a Jewish-Canadian clothing retailer who was born to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents in London, Ont.
Holiff’s story is reminiscent of many Jewish men who prospered in the business world in the early ’50s. His father and mother ran a “ladies ready-to-wear shop” in London, which struggled through the Great Depression. Holiff picked up the wreckage of that family disaster and became a kind of retail showman, not unlike Ed Mirvish, in his “step right up you lucky people” emporium on Toronto’s Bathurst Street. Holiff’s “Swatch Bar” in downtown London applied the sort of showy treatment to clothing retail that ’50s shoppers went for.
But musical trends and coincidence ended up leading Holiff in another direction. He had always been a music aficionado and was especially fond of jazz and the big band sound of his youth. He sensed something brewing when early rock ‘n’ roll figures like Bill Haley started to show up in country fair tents and hockey rinks around southern Ontario.
Haley, known as the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was the first high-profile performer who Holiff represented, booking and promoting his shows to sell-out crowds of teenage fans. He booked a teenage Paul Anka, Louis Armstrong and country singers like Jimmie Rodgers, who brought with him a ragtag troupe of backup pickers and fiddlers.
Holiff first saw Cash perform at the Palace Pier in Toronto. He met him backstage after a 1958 concert in London. It took a year of near misses before Holiff and Cash shook hands on a management deal that would last until the early ’70s.
What followed was one of the wildest rides on the road to success that a young, edgy businessman could have imagined.
Reading now about Cash’s early fame, one gets a clear sense of how easily Johnny Cash might have ended up a casualty, instead of a 20th-century icon. Julie Chadwick’s The Man Who Carried Cash tells this story with verve and impressive detail, giving Holiff the lead role in the tale.
In the early years, Cash was like a cartoon figure, swallowing “pep pills” the way Popeye downed a can of spinach. He failed to show up for shows without even a word; borrowed and lost his friends’ new Cadillacs; more or less abandoned his first wife and daughters at their rural California home; and even burned 500 acres of national forest on an overnight camping bender.
Nobody ever said that selling records was easy, but Holiff’s responsibilities went well beyond the usual royalty tussles and backroom deals with thuggish promoters. He helped Cash through the legal troubles of a divorce, the trial that resulted from the destroyed wildlife refuge and cleaned up the mess left behind by Cash’s repeated no-shows.
“Nobody ever said that selling records was easy”
Among the strangest of Holiff’s challenges was the period in the mid-’60s, when the Ku Klux Klan launched an “expose” attacking Cash in their Alabama-based white-supremacist magazine, The Thunderbolt. The focus was, at first, on Cash’s wife, whom the Klan incorrectly dubbed a “Negress,” along with a host of other racial slurs regarding Cash’s family. Klansmen sent Cash death threats and planted stooges who spat from the foot of southern stages. Neither Holiff nor Cash could figure out what had started it all. Cash was outspoken about native American rights, but this didn’t seem to be at the heart of the matter. Was it somehow based on the blunt edge of the southern white Christian response to rock ‘n’ roll as the “devil’s music”? Whatever the source of the craziness, Holiff was up to the task of battling the crazies.
He was also behind Cash’s notable prison shows at Folsom and San Quentin prisons. Cash’s prison shows were about more than music. He reached prison audiences on their own terms and mirrored their inner lives in a way other performers rarely did.
The Man Who Carried Cash hits its endpoint in the early ’70s, when Holiff finally broke away from “The Man in Black.” By then, Cash was deep into an evangelical Christian “rebirth” and it had become more difficult than ever to guide his career.
Holiff found himself retired with time on his hands. He went back to school at the University of Victoria to get the book learning he felt he’d missed as a young man. In time, Cash’s career went through a final renaissance, a late period of creative surprise and even genius before his death in 2003. Watching Cash’s final act from retirement in Victoria must have been among the most surreal experiences of Saul Holiff’s life in show business.