Johnny Cash’s Radio Debut: DJ George Klein Was There
George Klein is generally best-known as one of Elvis Presley’s closest friends—Klein first met Presley in an 8th grade music class and remained a part of the King’s inner circle up until his death in 1977. But Klein has also had a long career of his own as a radio and TV personality, and back in the 1950s he was one of the first, pioneering disc jockeys to embrace the sounds of a new music called rock ’n’ roll.
In the summer of 1954, Klein was the second DJ in the country to play Elvis’s Sun Records debut “That’s All Right” (Klein’s mentor, legendary wildman DJ Dewey Phillips, was the first to give Elvis a spin). A little later that summer, Klein got to experience a moment of music history all his own when he became the first DJ to give some radio time to another future legend.
“I was working at a little station in Memphis called KWEM,” Klein explains. “They had me on the Saturday shift, and on Saturdays anybody who wanted to could pay $25 and get 15 minutes of air-time. Well, one Saturday I was in the studio when in walks a big fellow with a couple of friends toting instruments. The big guy introduces himself as John and very politely explains that he’s paid for a 15-minute block that day and that he and his buddies would like to play some music.”
The ‘John’ and his friends were none other than Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, stand-up bassist Marshall Grant and guitarist Luther Perkins (the group would eventually become ‘The Tennessee Three’ with the addition of drummer Fluke Holland). Cash, fresh out of the army, was working in Memphis selling fences and fixtures at the Home Equipment Company, and the employer had agreed to put up the $25 dollar fee provided that throughout his performance Cash mixed in some plugs for the store.
“Most of the guys that bought time played some music, but most of them didn’t have any real talent,” recalls Klein. “But Johnny was so cordial and so humble that I really wanted to treat him well no matter what he was going to sound like. I got Johnny set up at one microphone, put the other between Luther and Marshall, and then gave them the best intro I could.”
The trio launched into an instrumental version of “Cry, Cry Cry” that showcased Perkins’ deft picking. Then Cash introduced the band and addressed his radio audience directly. “Folks, this our first time to be coming your way by way of radio, and we hope you enjoy our program. If you do, we hope you’ll write us a card or letter telling us so, and maybe we can do your favorite song for you some time...If we don’t know it we’ll try to learn it for you.”
Cash and his band went on to fill the remaining time with some flawlessly performed early versions of original tunes such as “Wide Open Road “ and “Belshazzar,” as well as an up-tempo rip at the classic “One More Ride” that left room for a few impressive solo verses by Perkins. In between, Cash good-naturedly talked up the porch screens and awnings available at the Home Equipment Company. There was one more instrumental pass at “Cry, Cry, Cry,’ and then Johnny Cash’s very first 15 minutes of fame were over.
“I was really interested in the harder-edged rhythm and blues sounds at the time like Big Joe Turner, and Johnny was coming from the country side of things,” remembers Klein. “But I thought he had a real style. He already had a sound all his own, which is what everybody was after back then. That impressed me. I also noticed that even though it was their first time being recorded and playing over the radio, they all played like pros. There weren’t any false starts, nothing sung off-key, no flubbed guitar lines. You could hear right away that these guys were ready to go places.”
In fact, the next time Klein saw Cash, a few months later, Klein had been promoted to handle KWEM’s weekday morning show and the singer was back at the station to promote his own Sun Records debut, “Hey Porter.” “He was still so friendly and humble that I was happy to play the record for him,” says Klein. “I remember telling him that he had such a distinctive voice, he ought to consider a radio career. He told me that he’d wanted to be a disc jockey and had been taking night classes at Keegans Radio School in Memphis. But now that he had a record out, he was going to give his music a shot for a while to see what would happen. I’d say he made the right decision.”