Thursday, January 17, 2008

Cash tribute left singing the blues

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 16, 2008


Had things worked out, had bureaucrats not changed their minds, had negotiations been fuller and motivations made more clear, the concert behind bars likely would have been a smashing success.

Inmates could have enjoyed a respite from their tribulations.

A Canadian would have re-created some of the spirit of one of the greatest live recordings in popular music. In doing so, a son would also know more of his late father.

Instead, most everyone is singing the Folsom Prison blues.

“It was going to be a beautiful event,” Jonathan Holiff said from his mother's home in Nanaimo.

The cancellation left him in tears.

Mr. Holiff had proposed a free concert on the 40th anniversary of Johnny Cash's landmark show at Folsom State Prison in California. The warden agreed.

As producer, Mr. Holiff lined up W.S. (Fluke) Holland, the drummer at the original show. He had tracked down the son of an inmate whose song Mr. Cash had performed. He had arranged postconcert interviews with a retired guard on hand that day, and inmate Larry Kennel, who attended the show on Jan. 13, 1968, and four decades later still had not fully paid his debt to society. (The prisoner caught one of the harmonicas that Mr. Cash tossed into the crowd and traded it a week later for a package of peanut M&Ms.)

Last week, state authorities rescinded permission, leaving prisoners disappointed and Mr. Holiff enraged. He feels the proposed show was cancelled due to the “gross incompetence” of officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Mr. Holiff, 42, had not yet celebrated his third birthday when a prison cafeteria became a temporary stage for the Man in Black. The concert was recorded and released that summer as Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. It remained on the rock and country charts for years, reviving a career in danger of being extinguished by drink and drugs.

Mr. Cash was managed at the time by Saul Holiff, Jonathan's father.

The senior Mr. Holiff was born in London, Ont., to Russian immigrant parents. He became a restaurateur, moonlighting as an impresario. Touring rock 'n' roll artists used to hold autograph sessions at his Sol's Square Boy drive-in restaurant. After one of those signing sessions, Mr. Cash asked Mr. Holiff to become his manager and wrote up a contract on a sheet of yellow paper.

The manager envisioned the rockabilly star playing Carnegie Hall instead of small clubs. He brought June Carter into Mr. Cash's show, and during a performance in his manager's hometown, Mr. Cash announced on stage his intention to marry her.

Little Jonathan grew up in a world of comic book heroes, not all of whom were two dimensional.

“To me, Johnny Cash was a living, breathing superhero, standing 6 foot 4, all in black, with a voice as deep as the ocean. He would play with us and give us candy. As far as I was concerned, he wore a cape and could fly.”

Over time, though, he realized Mr. Cash was responsible for his father's many absences. Saul Holiff resigned as Mr. Cash's manager in 1973, tired of the star's unpredictable behaviour and certain his popularity had peaked. Father and son had a falling out that was not resolved before the senior Mr. Holiff's death – “at a time of his own choosing,” as his funeral notice delicately stated – in 2005, aged 79.

The Holiffs are an entertainment family. A cousin discovered and managed Jim Carrey and Howie Mandel, while another cousin was talent co-ordinator for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Jonathan Holiff went into public relations, eventually switching to television production, including work on the televised NHL awards shows.

He moved to Hollywood and became a personal assistant to Alan Thicke, later founding a networking group for others in similar positions. In 1993, he joined the William Morris talent agency, before leaving to open the Hollywood-Madison Group, which helps pair celebrities with companies seeking endorsements.

After his father's suicide, he returned to Canada. He said he had either a breakdown, or a midlife crisis, vowing to abandon Tinseltown to do something productive like protecting the environment. After all, he realized his foray into the entertainment world was an attempt to win his father's approval.

His parents' apartment held no evidence of their time in the music industry, during which their clients had also included Carl Perkins, Tommy Hunter and the Statler Brothers. However, his mother gave him a key to a storage locker containing boxes of letters, handwritten song lyrics, and gold records, including a 45 rpm for A Boy Named Sue.

“I had come here to escape my father's shadow and I ran smack right into him.”

Inside one of the boxes he found reel upon reel of audio tape, including recordings of telephone calls between his father and Mr. Cash, as well as memorandums and daily musings, more than 60 hours of material.

He decided to produce a book and a documentary feature to be called My Father and the Man in Black.

“It was a way,” he said, “to reconcile with a distant and unloving father.”

While working on the documentary, he befriended Folsom warden Matthew Kramer and suggested the concert.

The night before the 1968 concert, a preacher had visited Mr. Cash at his motel with a tape including a song written by an inmate doing five-to-life for armed robbery. After listening to the song, the singer wrote the lyrics in a notebook.

The next day, after opening with Folsom Prison Blues and performing for more than an hour, Mr. Cash said: “Here's your song, Glen Sherley. Hope we do it justice.”

He then played Greystone Chapel. “A house of worship in this den of sin,” he rumbled, as inmates cheered.

After his release, Mr. Sherley had a performing career, before dying, perhaps by his own hand, in 1978. Mr. Holiff tracked down Mr. Sherley's son for the anniversary show.

Mr. Holiff is out $50,000. He is upset that the four non-profit groups that were to share in the proceeds of the concert will do without. He is disappointed to not be able to entertain the prisoners.

While he is not currently on good terms with prison officials in California, he is not yet ready to abandon plans for another concert. The 40th anniversary of the live recording released as Johnny Cash at San Quentin approaches.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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