The Truth About Elvis Presley's Friendship With Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley were two of the formative voices of rock 'n' roll. Each embodied the spirit of the genre, albeit in different ways. Cash came from a deeply religious background and rooted his sound in gospel, but he also represented a darker, anti-establishment ethos. He often put forth an outlaw image, perhaps most famously through his song "Folsom Prison Blues," which he performed for the prison's inmates in 1968. Presley also cut through the conventional mold of the '50s — both through his music, which was heavily influenced by black artists and labeled as rowdy and rebellious; and his hip gyrations, which were deemed overly sexual.

Both Cash and Presley got started in Tennessee around the mid-1950s, and they had musical friends and influences in common. It's not too surprising, then, that their paths crossed several times. Throughout the decade, they watched each other perform, sometimes on the same bill, and occasionally together. They developed a mutual admiration that would last a lifetime, even after fame and fate sent them their separate ways. Here's more on the connections between the King and the Man in Black.

Both Elvis and Johnny Cash were signed to Sun Records

706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee marks the spot of what could be called the birthplace of rock 'n' roll — or, at least, the place that brought rock 'n' roll into the mainstream. According to The National, it all began in 1954, when a 19-year-old Elvis Presley performed Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right" for Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records. That same year, Johnny Cash performed gospel songs in an audition for Phillips, who told him to "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell" (via Sun Records). By the end of 1954, Presley and Cash were both signed to the label.

"I can't say for sure what pop music would sound like today without a Sun Records in the '50s, but there may not have been a Beatles or Rolling Stones," Sun Records president John Singleton told The National. "I believe it would be hard to find a successful rock artist who was not a fan of Sun." Another iconic figure in music, Bob Dylan, mentioned the label's impact in his 2004 memoir, "Chronicles," writing, "I'd always thought that Sun Records and Sam Phillips himself ­created the most crucial, uplifting and powerful records ever made."

Johnny Cash attended a couple of Elvis' earliest concerts

The first Elvis Presley "concert" Johnny Cash went to wasn't exactly a sold-out stadium show. Presley was performing from the flatbed of a truck to sing for a couple hundred people at a drugstore opening. At that time, he had only released one single, and was left with no choice but to play the same two songs — his only songs — on a loop, per "Cash: The Autobiography" (via Elvis Australia). That was also the first time the pair met.

Presley invited Cash and his then-wife, Vivian, to his next show at the Eagle's Nest in Memphis, Tennessee, in July of 1954. "I remember Elvis' show at the Eagle's Nest as if [it] were yesterday," Cash wrote in "Cash: The Autobiography." "The date was a blunder, because the place was an adult club where teenagers weren't welcome, and so Vivian and I were two of only a dozen or so patrons, fifteen at the most. All the same, I thought Elvis was great ... He didn't say much. He didn't have to, of course; his charisma alone kept everyone's attention."

Cash noted Presley's impressive rhythm guitar-playing, and the fact that Presley was never particularly known as a guitar player. In fact, Cash never heard anyone else praise Presley's playing, nor did he recall ever hearing him playing guitar on his own records.

Johnny Cash wrote about Elvis' effects on women (and men)

Throughout his life, Johnny Cash felt a certain loyalty to the Elvis Presley he knew in the 1950s. He wrote in "Cash: The Autobiography" that he much preferred Presley's music when they first met over his popular later work, which Cash thought was overproduced. "My Elvis was the Elvis of the '50s," Cash wrote (via Elvis Australia). "He was a kid when I worked with him. He was 19 years old, and he loved cheeseburgers, girls, and his mother, not necessarily in that order (it was more like his mother, then girls, then cheeseburgers) ... Personally, I liked cheeseburgers and I had nothing against his mother, but the girls were the thing. He had so many girls after him that whenever he was working with us, there were always plenty left over. We had a lot of fun."

Presley, his rock 'n' roll songs, and his hip-shaking famously drew hordes of enthusiastic girls. But Cash emphasized in his biography that Presley's stardom was built on more than sex appeal. "We had a lot of fun in general, not just with the girls," he wrote. "It was nice that we could make a living at it, but every one of us would have done it for free. And you know, Elvis was so good. Every show I did with him, I never missed the chance to stand in the wings and watch. We all did. He was that charismatic."

Elvis 'introduced' June Carter to Johnny Cash

In the mid-1950s, June Carter of the country trio The Carter Sisters went on tour with Elvis Presley. By then, Presley had befriended — and become a fan of — up-and-comer Johnny Cash. The King took to playing Cash's music on the road. In her 1987 autobiography, "From the Heart," Carter recalled a time when Presley was trying to tune his guitar and sing Cash's early hit "Cry, Cry, Cry." "I don't know this Johnny Cash," Carter recalled saying (via Express), to which Presley replied, "Oh you'll know Cash. The whole world will know Johnny Cash. He's a friend of mine." Throughout the tour, Presley proceeded to play Cash's music on cafe jukeboxes.

In June 1956, Carter and Cash finally met at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. "Johnny Cash took me by the hand and said, 'I've always wanted to meet you,'" Carter recalled (via Express). "The strangest feeling came over me. I was afraid to look him in the eyes. It was one of the things I did best. I never stammered and still found myself not able to say much of anything. I think I finally blurted out — 'I feel like I know you already. Elvis plays you on the jukebox all the time and he can't tune his guitar without humming Cry, Cry, Cry. Now he's got me doing it.'"

John Carter Cash wrote about a possible romance between his mother and Elvis

In 2008, John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny Cash and June Carter, released the biography "Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash." In the book, John addressed speculation that June may have had an affair with Elvis Presley. "Throughout my life, I would see Mom get a mischievous twinkle in her eye whenever she mentioned Elvis Presley," John wrote (via Express). "Her eyes would flash merrily, and she would say, 'You know, son, your father was always jealous of Elvis' ... She even told me once that she sometimes wondered what would have happened if she had fallen in love with Elvis."

Speaking to Express in 2020, John said, "My mother had worked on the road with Elvis when she was younger, so I heard a lot about him growing up." June toured with Presley in the mid-1950s, around the time Presley and Johnny Cash signed to Sun Records, met, and became friends.

"Though Mom always maintained that she never had an affair with Elvis, Carl [Perkins, her first husband] believed differently and perhaps for good reason," John wrote in the biography. "After Carl moved out of their Madison home, Mom would sometimes let Elvis stay at the house to 'rest' after a tour."

Johnny Cash and Elvis made up one half of 'The Million Dollar Quartet'

On December 4, 1956, singer-songwriter Carl Perkins headed to Memphis' Sun Studio for a recording session. A pre-fame Jerry Lee Lewis was there on keys and, by pure coincidence, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash both stopped by the studio, per NJ Arts. The foursome played an apt, 23-song blend of gospel, bluegrass, and contemporary hits, including Presley's own "Love Me Tender" and "Don't Be Cruel."

Recognizing the unusual, and now historic, nature of this meeting of musical minds, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips alerted the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The paper ran the story the following day, complete with a photo of the four musicians, captioned "The Million Dollar Quartet."

"I was the first to arrive and the last to leave, contrary to what has been written," Cash wrote of the session in his 1997 book "Cash: The Autobiography" (via Elvis Australia). "I was just there to watch Carl record, which he did until mid-afternoon, when Elvis came in with his girlfriend. At that point the session stopped and we all started laughing and cutting up together. Then Elvis sat down at the piano, and we started singing gospel songs we all knew, then some Bill Monroe songs ... So, again contrary to what some people have written, my voice is on the tape. It's not obvious, because I was farthest away from the mike and I was singing a lot higher than I usually did in order to stay in key with Elvis, but I guarantee you, I'm there."

Elvis and Johnny Cash impersonated each other

In 1959, Johnny Cash opened for Elvis Presley on a live tour. He began with a slapstick, hip-swiveling Elvis impression and a rendition of the King's 1956 hit "Heartbreak Hotel." Then, when Presley would enter the stage, he would take his turn impersonating the Man in Black. Video footage of Cash's Presley impression, along with audio recordings of Presley singing Cash's hits "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line," is available on YouTube.

Presley's Cash impression reportedly traveled offstage and on the road, according to Chuck Crisafulli and George Klein's 2010 book "Elvis: My Best Man: Radio Days, Rock 'n' Roll Nights, and My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley." During Presley's 1957 tour, he was riding a train when a teenage girl approached him, greeted him with an excited "Johnny Cash!", and asked him to sing one of his – Cash's — songs. "Elvis would never sing one of his own songs in that type of situation," Klein wrote, "but for this little Johnny Cash fan he dropped his voice to its lowest notes and started singing a few lines of 'Hey Porter,' a song Cash had cut at Sun that seemed especially appropriate for a midnight train ride. The girl was thrilled, and even ended up with an autograph from Elvis, which read: 'Best Wishes, Johnny Cash.'"

Johnny Cash wrote that Elvis was sensitive to gossip

The level of stardom that Elvis Presley experienced inevitably came with its share of scrutiny. And although Presley was eager to shake his hips on the world's stage, he had a hard time with criticism of any kind, and particularly the rumors about him using drugs, as Johnny Cash noted in "Cash: The Autobiography."

"[Presley] was very sensitive, easily hurt by the stories people told about him being on dope and so on," Cash wrote (via Elvis Australia). "I myself couldn't understand why people wanted to say that back in the '50s, because in those days he was the last person on earth who needed dope. He had such a high energy level that it seemed he never stopped – though maybe that's why they said he was on dope. Either way, he wasn't, or at least I never saw any evidence of it. I never saw him use any kind of drug, or even alcohol; he was always clear-headed around me, and very pleasant."

Cash himself didn't see Presley as a "bad boy" or a contentious figure at all. "Elvis was such a nice guy, and so talented and charismatic — he had it all — that some people just couldn't handle it and reacted with jealousy," Cash wrote. "It's only human, I suppose, but it's sad."

Johnny Cash and and Elvis 'weren't close at all' in Elvis' later years

Beyond the 1950s, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash went their separate ways. "Elvis went on to make his films and some more music later on and they never worked again together after the 1950s," Cash's son, John Carter Cash, told Express in 2020.

"He and I liked each other, but we weren't that tight — I was older than he was, for one thing, and married, for another — and we weren't close at all in his later years," Cash wrote in "Cash: The Autobiography" (via Elvis Australia). "I took the hint when he closed his world around him; I didn't try to invade his privacy. I'm so glad I didn't, either, because so many of his old friends were embarrassed so badly when they were turned away at Graceland."

In the 1960s and '70s, Cash's occasional interactions with Presley were positive but professional, and conducted from a distance. "He and I chatted on the phone a couple of times and swapped notes now and again," Cash recalled in his book. "If he were closing at the Las Vegas Hilton as I was getting ready to open, he'd wish me luck, that kind of thing — but that was about the extent of it."

Johnny Cash & Friends performed a song in Elvis' memory

Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977, at the age of 42. That December, Johnny Cash recorded the Johnny Cash Christmas Special, which included an all-star tribute to the King. He was joined by the other two members of "The Million-Dollar Quartet," Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as fellow Sun Records star Roy Orbison. "I worked my very first concert as a guest, and he was a star," Cash said of Presley (via YouTube), "and he always was a star because all of us remember him, and how he loved gospel songs, and how we liked him. This song is for Elvis." The group then performed the gospel standard "This Train is Bound for Glory" in Presley's honor.

The special also included performances of three songs that Presley had recorded, per Elvis Australia. Cash teamed up with the quartet The Statler Brothers to perform "Blue Christmas," a song Presley popularized in 1957. Perkins performed "Blue Suede Shoes," which he wrote and initially recorded in 1955. Lewis performed "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," which he popularized in 1957 and Presley covered in 1971.

Johnny Cash called Elvis the 'best performer' ever

Johnny Cash was known for transcending the boundaries of genre and getting crowds — of people ranging from devout Christians to prison inmates — on their feet. But by 1988, after three decades of touring with countless rock 'n' roll icons, Cash had his own idea of which artist had the best stage presence: the King himself. "The best performer probably was Elvis Presley," Cash said during a 1988 interview on The Late Late Show. "I don't think anybody could touch him. I never saw Hank Williams, who was one of my favorites. He died before I ever got to see him."

"He had a lot of rhythm," Cash continued, referring to Presley. "He was a very good singer. And he was a fabulous performer in the way he moved the people. When he was 19 years-old, that's when I toured with him at first. And not only the girls loved Elvis. But every man backstage was standing in the wings watching Elvis. He had that charisma, that magic that a great performer needs to get the people right there."

John Carter Cash talked about his dad's love for Elvis

In the early 1970s, Johnny Cash was in Las Vegas to play a show while Elvis Presley had a residency there. Cash brought the whole family along, including his young son, John Carter Cash, according to Express. The family was planning to see Presley perform, but the plans fell through. "I was very young; would have been four or five years old," John told Express during a 2020 interview. "But I got ill so we weren't able to go. I never met Elvis!"

John went on to tell the outlet about the dynamics and differences between his father and Presley. "They were contemporaries and were part of the driving force that created rock and roll," he said. 'They each had their own individual, unique traits as artists ... Dad carried on and he made music up until the very end. In some way, his legacy's quite a bit different, but he always appreciated and loved Elvis."