54 Years Ago: Johnny Cash Earns No. 1 Hit With ‘A Boy Named Sue’
Fifty-four years ago today (Aug. 23, 1969) was an epic day for Johnny Cash: It was on that date that the singer soared to the top of the charts with his live single "A Boy Named Sue," from his At San Quentin album.
"A Boy Named Sue," written by Shel Silverstein, tells the story of a boy who was abandoned by his father when he was only three years old, leaving him to fight the ridicule of having a traditionally female name. Years later, he finds his father in a bar, and a physical altercation ensues, resulting in a knife cutting off part of Sue's ear. Sue hits his father hard enough to break a chair on his teeth, before his father reveals the reason he gave him his name.
"Son, this world is rough," the song explains. "And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough / And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along / So I give ya that name, and I said goodbye / I knew you'd have to get tough or die / And it's the name that helped to make you strong."
According to Silverstein's nephew, Mitch Myers, it is the Man in Black's wife, June Carter Cash, who deserves the credit for the singer recording what became one of his career-defining tunes.
"In those days in Nashville, and for all the people that would visit, the most fun that anyone really could have would be to go over to someone's house and play music," Myers recalls. "And they would do what one would call a 'guitar pull,' where you grabbed a guitar, and you played one of your new songs, then someone else next to you would grab it and do the same, and there were people like Johnny Cash or Joni Mitchell, people of that caliber, in the room. Shel sang his song "Boy Named Sue," and Johnny's wife, June Carter, thought it was a great song for Johnny Cash to perform."
"A Boy Named Sue" stayed at the No. 1 spot on the country charts for five straight weeks. It became Cash's biggest hit on the pop charts as well, landing at No. 2 on the Billboard 100 chart.
This story was originally written by Gayle Thompson, and revised by Annie Zaleski.
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