The man behind Johnny Cash was Canadian — and Julie Chadwick's new book shares his story

The Man Who Carried Cash explores the relationship between the musician and his manager, Saul Holiff.
B.C. journalist Julie Chadwick used archived letters to assemble the story of Johnny Cash and his Canadian manager, Saul Holiff. (Dundurn Press)
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Millions of people know Johnny Cash and his music. Less well known is that a Canadian managed "The Man in Black." Saul Holiff, from London, Ont., was his manager from 1960-1973, and Holiff was as colourful a character as the man he managed.

Journalist Julie Chadwick has written a book about Holiff and his relationship with Cash, The Man Who Carried Cash: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash and the Making of an American Icon. This interview originally aired on Jan. 15, 2018.

Sharing the stage

"I had never heard of Saul Holiff. He had not been part of the story — he wasn't in the film Walk the Line, even though it was set in 1960s when Saul was Johnny Cash's manager. I was working in Nanaimo, B.C., as a reporter when the story landed in my lap. Saul's son, Jonathan, contacted me after he had done a documentary about his father and was wondering if I would do a story about it. He was going to launch the documentary in Nanaimo because that was where Saul lived at the end of his life. In order to deal with his death, Jonathan's mother suggested he access Saul's storage locker and Jonathan realized that his father was a much larger figure in Johnny Cash's career than he had known."

The man who took care of business

"Saul got into business when he was younger. He ran a clothing store and he started a burger restaurant on the side. He also had an interest in what has 'hot' with teenagers because they were his clients. At the end of the 1950s he started getting rock and roll acts like Bill Haley & His Comets and Paul Anka. Johnny Cash was on his radar, that's how he brought him in. Initially, they didn't get along. But Saul was good at making sure that everything was taken care of. Saul had to juggle many things that weren't his job. He handled Johnny's divorce to his first wife, Vivian. The two were formidable men. Johnny could handle the stage stuff and Saul handled everything else."

The clash with Cash

"I accessed a portion of the storage material and looked at the letters between the two of them. I could immediately glean that there was a significant relationship in the subtext of their conversations. One of the pieces of the archives was also a 65-hour audio tape diary. While both methods were therapeutic for him, think it was easier for Saul to get his thoughts out on paper. He never went to school, so he was almost obsessive about reading and improving his vocabulary. Letter writing was a natural way of expressing himself. Sometimes these letters were scathing. Saul didn't want to have to defer to Johnny Cash, which a manager essentially has to do. Johnny, at times, didn't like that Saul wasn't always a 'yes' man. When they worked together, it gelled incredibly well because they had separate skills. When it was good, it was really good — when it was bad, it was awful."   

Julie Chadwick's comments have been edited and condensed.