A once unknown Londoner and how he created a superstar…

In recent years, the name Saul Holiff has become quite well known in London, ON and beyond. However, it wasn’t too long prior that he and his role in launching Johnny Cash to country music superstardom, were relatively unknown.

Luckily, Jonathan Holiff, son of the late Saul, decided to sift through an entire storage locker full of photos, letters, journals, and recordings pertaining to Saul’s years managing Cash (1960-1973) which resulted in the film, My Father and the Man In Black (2012). 

The original poster for Jonathan Holiff’s 2012 film, “My Father and the Man in Black.” Photo courtesy of Jonathan Holiff

Ahead of the Forest City screening of the film on April 14, which is part of Jack Richardson London Music Week, I had the chance to speak with Jonathan about his intentions behind the film, his own memories of Saul, Cash, and growing up in London, Ontario.

Where it all began.

Jonathan recalled what helped to ignite his ambition to make this film following his father’s death (2005). Upon finding an archive’s worth of material in an unknown storage locker.

“It was the most work I’ve ever done in my life,” he recalls. “It was a huge job involving over 6000 pieces of ephemera. From letters, to photos, to knick-knacks.”

As one can imagine, there would be no road map to this collection of decades worth of memories packed up in garbage bags.

Saul’s suicide, discovering the storage locker, and the big screen release of Walk the Line all happened within relatively close proximity. However, it wasn’t the rekindled public love for Cash following the release or the fact that Saul was left out of the movie entirely that gave Jonathan the nudge to make his film.

In fact, it was yet another London connection, this time in the form of a Free Press article by local favourite and LondonFuse Contributor, James Reaney.

The dream team at the CNE in 1970. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Holiff

The article addresses the fact that Walk the Line blatantly disregards Saul’s imperative involvement in the rise of Cash. Reaney said “Holiff’s family, reeling from his suicide, could not help but notice the apparent snub. Soon, they learned other Cash fans — including this columnist — felt that way, too.”

Upon reading this, Jonathan realized there are many people interested in Saul’s story and it’s one that needed to be told. Thus, the archival research began.

Working and sorting, sorting and working.

With the incredible task at hand, Jonathan began working to sort and log all pieces of ephemera while creating a timeline to make sense of it all. He called this a very cathartic experience as he found himself understanding his father and the experiences he had post-mortem. That certainly isn’t an experience many people have had.

Fast forward to 2012, when the first screening of My Father and the Man in Black took place in London at Hyland Cinema. The screening sold out immediately and Holiff remembers the line stretched all the way around the block.

“We even had to turn people away,” he says. “So the screening on the 14th is a great opportunity for people who couldn’t see it then, to see it now.”

True London connections.

Jonathan said that seeing this film can be important for Londoners and Canadians in general, on many levels.

“Most people know that Johnny proposed to June in London,” he explains. “But most don’t know it was actually a Londoner who brought them together.”

Yes, Saul was the impetus behind their infamous relationship, a managerial move that essentially made Cash’s career.

London Gardens 1965
The trio of trios at London Gardens in 1965. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Holiff

On top of that, Jonathan also grew up in London (until the age of 14) and recalled many happy memories of childhood in places like Springbank Park and Storybook Gardens.

But what’s that key, underlying message in My Father and the Man in Black? The one you don’t see as the literal story unfolds, but the one you understand through emotion and awareness?

“This film is particularly important for people with estranged parents,” Holiff says. “Make nice with your parent while you still have the opportunity to do so because you’re probably not going to find 60 hours of audio recordings that help you understand once they die.”

You can catch the full screening of My Father and the Man in Black on Saturday April 14 in the Jack Richardson Ballroom at 182 Dundas Street. For tickets, click right here.

Check out the full listings of events at Jack Richardson Music Week, and do not miss the official Jack Richardson London Music Awards on April 15 at the London Music Hall (185 Dundas Street)!

Feature photo courtesy of Jonathan Holiff

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