The best $20 you will ever spend on local music history…
Buys you what? A book about the late Londoner who was the only manager who could really manage Johnny Cash.
Saul Holiff is “the man” in Julie Chadwick‘s excellent The Man Who Carried Cash. It covers the decade-plus when Holiff helped the American country singer rise from pilled-up career hell to superstardom in the 1960s. Johnny Cash singled out Holiff amongst his managers for approval. And Cash’s observation helps Chadwick’s epic tale of the two titans and their business, artistic, and personal relationships reach a serene conclusion.
I recently interviewed Julie Chadwick and she answered the questions so thoughtfully, most other comments would seem shallow.
Here are some of the things we covered: Male identity and its cruelties. Showbiz in the 1960s. Heroic women and flawed men. Anti-Semitism. The excellence of London Free Press photographers. Canada vs. the USA. Creativity in pop culture. Fathers and sons. Spirituality. The epistolary bromance. Suicide. Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.
There’s much more to The Man Who Carried Cash than even this impressive list might suggest. Keep the title in mind. Saul Holiff did carry Cash many times during the years when the American icon was unable to walk the line.
Now, a 5Q chat with Julie Chadwick…
How did you find out about the Holiff-Cash connection? Did it surprise you there wasn’t a book about it already?
My exposure to the story came about when Jonathan Holiff, Saul’s son, contacted me where I worked at the Nanaimo Daily News, to see if I wanted to write a story about the release of his documentary about Saul and Johnny, My Father and The Man in Black. To a degree, yes it was surprising. Nanaimo is a city of about 83,000 people and I never anticipated it had a connection to Johnny Cash, but Saul lived here at the end of his life, until his suicide in 2005.
After his death, a storage locker of Saul’s was opened up and Jonathan found a vast archive of materials pertaining to his time as Johnny’s manager: hundreds of photos, letters, audio diaries, audiotaped phone calls, newspaper clippings, memos, financial records and visual materials like press kits and posters. This became the basis of Jonathan’s film and formed the basis of my book.
As I researched the material and the story behind it, yes, I was surprised that there wasn’t more about Saul out there. He played a crucial role in Johnny’s career, at a crucial time in music history.
What is your one-paragraph take on Saul Holiff?
A complicated, brilliant, and ultimately tortured man who seemed unable to fully accept just how intelligent and accomplished he was, despite all he achieved. I was captivated by Saul’s intellect and nuanced way of understanding things, and was moved by the depth of the emotional life that was revealed in his diaries and that he kept hidden, even from those closest to him.
What is the biggest or most common misconception about the Cash-Holiff relationship?
As many books, other than the most recent biographies, completely overlook Saul’s role — to the point that some mention him only in passing as “a promoter” — it could perhaps be assumed that he was not crucial to Cash’s career.
I admit that when I first heard the story I assumed that he was perhaps only a minor part of his entourage. But as I went through the material I discovered more and more that the opposite was true. I think his role and his personal relationship with Johnny was under-acknowledged. This may be due to his personality. As a formidable personality that also had the ability to saturate a room with his presence, Saul often rubbed people the wrong way. Which may have led them to not only think that he and Johnny had an unpleasant relationship but to also write him out of the story. He was also an outsider — everything about Saul and his background was vastly different from Johnny and his entourage.
As for their relationship, I was surprised by two things: one, by the depth and intimacy of how they interacted at times; when they worked well together they were so complementary that their partnership was a dream, and led to incredible highs and successes. But independently, they were powerful figures with their own ideas and direction, and when they clashed it was intense and sometimes ugly.
Secondly, I was impressed by Saul’s sense of vision. In his own business earlier on and with Johnny, he was consistently thinking outside the box and proposing ideas that, though perhaps commonplace today, simply were not done back then. International tours, putting a country and western star in Carnegie Hall and other high-end venues, pushing Cash outside of the traditional country labeling and into mainstream pop success, and constantly advocating for a national television show.
Any thoughts on how the acclaimed film “Walk The Line,” by ignoring Saul Holiff, may have inspired Jonathan (and others) to focus on him?
I think Walk The Line showed that there are many ways to tell a story. It is a love story, and its factual accuracy is debatable, but that’s the Hollywood version. I found their portrayal of Johnny’s first wife Vivian to be unfair, and the story of how Johnny first joined June musically was not accurate. It was actually Saul who first put them together, at the Big D show in Dallas in 1961.
But as a love story, that is one perspective; to tell it from the manager’s point of view is another. A friend of mine who has worked in music for 50 years said to me, “If you do your job right as a manager, you’re invisible. But as soon as something goes wrong, it’s your fault.” So The Man Who Carried Cash comes from the perspective of the man behind the scenes pulling the strings and as such, is a different take.
What was the toughest part of writing/researching the book? What seemed to happen most smoothly?
By far the most frustrating part was that most of the people I wanted to interview were dead, or very old and hard to locate. There were gaps in the information I had that would have been greatly informed by their take on events. I also wanted a third or fourth perspective on certain incidents that at times was just not available.
The smoothest part was that Jonathan had done a lot of research for the film, and had completed a lot of the most grueling work beforehand, such as transcribing tapes, getting the back story and dates of photographs and digitizing the materials. He also sourced old interviews with Saul and rare interviews with Johnny, for example, all of which saved me years of work. Years. So that was incredibly fortunate.
Jonathan also served as a great guide through the archive of materials and had come to know the story so well himself that he was an invaluable resource.
Want to get your hands on a copy of The Man Who Carried Cash?
What: The Man Who Carried Cash: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, And The Making Of An American Icon by Julie Chadwick (Dundurn Press)
Buy it in London: “Multiple Chapters and Indigo stores in London have it, as well as the bookstore at Western University (fun fact: I used archive photos from there and it’s also Saul’s alma mater). People can also get it from Amazon or order it in at an independent store” says Chadwick.
Best London insight: “Some clerk had made an egregious error and when (the Bank of Montreal branch) realized they had invited one of their clients that was Jewish, all hell broke loose as to how they could diplomatically un-invite me so as not to cause some Colonel Weldon to have an upset stomach.” Saul Holiff, then a successful London business owner, on being (un)invited to a dinner at the London Club in the 1950s.
I hear the book tour coming: “I’d like to do something special in London. I will keep you posted.” – Julie Chadwick
Feature photo of Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, June Carter, and promoter Phil Simon, backstage at the London Gardens, 1967. Photo by Victor Aziz Photography Ltd.
James Stewart Reaney keeps James’s Brander Newer Blogger at LondonFuse.ca as part of his volunteerism and reverence for London A&E. He recently retired from The London Free Press after more than 30 years covering everything from A — The Alcohollys — to B: baseball’s 1986 World Series. Follow his Twitter #ldnont thoughts via @JamesSReaney