Ex-Londoner remembers Cash

JAMES REANEY

, Last Updated: 3:46 PM ET

LONDON, Ont. -- For 13 years, former Londoner Saul Holiff walked alongside Johnny Cash as the personal manager who helped the country singer's career walk the line from chaos to superstardom.

Yesterday, Holiff wanted to say thanks for the role Cash played in shaping his own life. Cash died yesterday at 71.

"He picked me up off the streets, you might say, and he made me a man . . . if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be sitting here," said Holiff, now of Nanaimo, B.C.

Holiff met Cash in 1958 when he had booked him for a local show. Two years later, he became Cash's manager. Holiff stayed with Cash during the early 1960s when the singer's substance abuse made his career chaotic. Holiff was with Cash during the years of triumph, following the live recording at Folsom Prison and the hit TV shows.

Cash never forgot. He invited Holiff and wife, Barbara, to the Cash estate in Jamaica in the 1970s after the management tie end-ed amicably. Cash recently sent Holiff a letter to express gratitude for all Holiff had done for him and to say the Cash family remembered those years fondly.

"He winds up by saying, 'Your friend,' " Holiff said yesterday of the letter.

It is not just his former manager who connects London and Cash. The singer proposed on stage to June Carter, his soulmate and a country legend herself, at a London concert in 1968. They married shortly after.

During the dark periods in the early 1960s, June Carter was there for Cash. So was Holiff.

"We were allies. Many times she leaned on me and I leaned on her to get through the misery of having a whole tour cancelled and 'what do we do now?' kind of thing," Holiff said. (June Carter Cash died earlier this year).

In 1972, Cash, Carter and Holiff had been riding high with the singer on the straight and narrow for several years. The Free Press went along for the ride on a tour.

"I don't want to work with anyone else. He does things the right way. He's the ideal personal manager. He makes a lot of decisions on his own. The right decisions," Cash told Free Press reporter Eric Bender during an interview aboard a jet. "We know each other so well he can sense what I want."

In Holiff's eyes, his time with Cash had peaked in 1970 when the singer played a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York.

"When he came out -- this is downtown New York . . . 19,000 people roared. It's the most amazing sound because these are people that got caught up in some sort of hysteria," Holiff said.

Holiff is proud that the business relationship with Cash ended when the singer had reached the top -- in life, on the charts and on stage.

"When I left he wasn't drinking, he wasn't smoking and he was at the very top of his game . . . I didn't walk away from someone who was emotionally distressed," Holiff said.

Holiff told Canadian Press that Cash was complex.

"He was mercurial. He was enigmatic. He was a pussycat. He wasn't like he appeared to be. He was tough. He was miserable. He was a nice guy. He was a lot of different things," said Holiff.

Cash was certainly mercurial on the night he proposed to Carter on stage in London. Holiff insists it surprised her. There are many versions of the story, but it likely happened at the old Treasure Island Gardens on Feb. 22, 1968, with 5,000 fans looking on.

Cash had just recorded the breakthrough record at the California prison and the two were married early in March, 1968. Other details have become the stuff of urban myth, even down to differing accounts of how long Carter kept Cash waiting for an answer and of which song was played after Carter agreed to wed Cash.

Whatever song they celebrated with that night, the Cash-Carter marriage worked. It also survived ill health for Cash and Carter and the demons which still haunted him.

At a 1991 Western Fair grandstand show before a crowd of 10,000, Cash and Carter bantered about Cash's association with Canada Trust through its JohnnyCash machines -- another London connection. "I'm supposed to say 'I'm Johnny Cash, your 24-hour money machine.' "

That time, Carter had her response ready. "I hope it works for you. It works for me," she said.

Holiff was based outside the city during his years with Cash before eventually returning to London, only to move again. After many years working with the singer and other artists, he stopped managing Cash in 1973 to spend more time with the Holiffs' young children. The Holiffs left London more than 20 years ago.


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