The Man Who Carried Cash: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and the Making of an American Icon
By Julie Chadwick
Johnny Cash, who also had deep roots in folk music and rock ‘n’ roll, was – in my not so humble opinion – among the greatest country music artists of all time, perhaps the greatest.
The basic story of Cash’s life – from his rise in Memphis in the 1950s, through his drug addiction and unreliability as a performer and ultimately tremendous successes in the 1960s, the collapse of his first marriage and love affair with June Carter, who became his second wife, his embrace of fundamentalist Christianity, and on to his late-career renaissance via his stripped-down-to-basics American Recordings – is well known.
Less well known is the story of Saul Holiff, the Jewish Canadian entrepreneur from London, Ontario, who was Cash’s manager from 1960 through 1973, and the story of how Holiff and Cash’s lives and careers were so much a part of each other for 13 volatile years. Those are the stories that British Columbia-based journalist and author Julie Chadwick tells in The Man Who Carried Cash: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and the Making of an American Icon.
Holiff kept meticulous records, diaries and even tape recordings and his son, Jonathan Holiff, director of the 2012 documentary, “My Father and the Man in Black,” gave Chadwick access to that material. She also conducted extensive research and interviewed surviving principals who were involved with Holiff, Cash and their stories.
The Man Who Carried Cash – a title whose meaning can be interpreted both literally and figuratively – is a compelling read that begins with the circumstances of Holiff’s death in 2005 and then goes back to before his birth and the anti-Semitism that his family faced in Ukraine before they immigrated to Canada where Holiff was born in 1925, and his youth in Canada.
Serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, Holiff became fascinated with show business and eventually became a concert promoter which led to his developing a relationship with Cash and becoming his manager.
The years Holiff worked with Cash included both the lowest points – when Cash’s drug addictions made him an unreliable performer who couldn’t be counted on to show up for his concerts – and the highest points when he rode the top of the charts, starred in his weekly TV variety series, and became one of the music world’s most successful artists. Through those years Holiff worked to keep Cash’s career viable and on track.
Dealing with Cash – when he was at either end of the success spectrum or somewhere in between – was never easy and it took a toll on Holiff who eventually told Cash he’d had enough and walked away. As the blurb on the back of the book notes, “In 1973, at the zenith of Cash’s career, Saul quit. Until now, no one knew why.”
Holiff, himself, was no saint. It was particularly sad to read about his failed relationships with his sons as they grew up. For that matter, one of the saddest sections of the book relates to the failure of Cash’s first marriage and of his failed relationships with his four young daughters (Cash left Holiff to deal with many of the details of his divorce).
There is much insight to be gained into Cash’s career and the music he was making – at least during the Holiff-managed years – from the book. But, mostly, Chadwick's great success is in her study of the relationship of two men who were completely dependent on one another and of how that relationship affected, and was affected by, the people around them.