© Chris Hoffmann/dpa/Corbis / © Jeff Albertson/CORBIS
In February 1969, Johnny Cash had a party at his house in Hendersonville, TN. As the evening went on, the party turned into a guitar pull, with some of Johnny's friends trying out their latest songs. "Bob Dylan sang 'Lay Lady Lay,'" recalled Cash. "Kris Kristofferson sang 'Me and Bobby McGee.' Joni Mitchell sang 'Both Sides Now.' Graham Nash sang 'Marrakesh Express.' And Shel Silverstein sang 'A Boy Named Sue.'"
Cash loved Silverstein's tune and asked him to write down the words. He might not have realized it then, but the song was about to change his life. He said, "We were leaving the next day to go to California and June said, 'Take the words to 'A Boy Named Sue' to California. You'll want to record that at San Quentin.' I said, 'I don't have time to learn that song before the show.' And she said, 'Well, take them anyway.'"
Cash's recorded performance before the inmates at San Quentin prison was a follow-up to the previous year's hit album, At Folsom Prison. (Cash had been playing shows at prisons since 1957.) For San Quentin, Cash rehearsed a set of material that included past hits such as "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire." But his wife June encouraged him to add Silverstein's humorous song to his set.
Cash said, "I'd only sung it the first time the night before and I read it off as I sang it. I still didn't know the words. As a last resort, I pulled those lyrics out and laid them on the music stand, and when it came time that I thought I was brave enough, I did the song."
Despite reading the lyrics, Cash gave the song his all, investing it with an actor's bravado. There's also a spontaneity and joy about the performance, with Cash obviously amused by Silverstein's clever lyrics. And the inmates loved it, whooping and laughing along, especially when Cash shouted the lines, "My name is Sue! How do you do? Now you're gonna die!" From the ovation at the song's end, Cash suspected he might have a hit on his hands.
Columbia Records agreed, releasing "A Boy Named Sue" as a single. But they had to clean up a few lines before country radio would play it. With "son-of-a-bitch" and "damn" bleeped out of the song, it topped the country charts for five weeks straight, then soared to #2 on the pop charts, becoming Cash's biggest-selling single ever and one of his signature tunes.
And what of the man behind the hit? Shel Silverstein, the creator of classic children's books Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree and a cartoonist for Playboy, was also a songwriter who penned hits for Dr. Hook and Bobby Bare. Silverstein said the inspiration for "A Boy Named Sue" came from his friend, radio announcer and humorist Jean Shepherd, who'd been teased as a kid because of his feminine first name. "I fist-fought my way through every grade in school," Shepherd later said.
"Sue" earned Silverstein a Grammy for Best Country Song, and in 1970, he appeared on The Johnny Cash Show to duet with the Man in Black on the hit:
And in 1978, Silverstein wrote and recorded a sequel, "The Father of a Boy Named Sue," which retold the story from the dad's point of view.