Although he died in 2003, Johnny Cash is still a favorite for those of us who have always enjoyed his music while also finding his erratic path through life a little fascinating. But even though Cash was known to have gone through a few rough patches along the way, his fans might be surprised to hear that one of his most embarrassing moments came in connection with one of his biggest songs.
Although Cash’s concert at Folsom Prison in 1968 was a pivotal point in his career, he’d actually cobbled together his “Folsom Prison Blues” more than a decade earlier. But in the years following the concert it became one of his signature songs, which made it sort of embarrassing when bandleader/composer Gordon Jenkins sued Cash over its origin. It turned out that the song borrowed a lot from an earlier piece called “Crescent City Blues,” written* by Jenkins and performed by his then-wife, Beverly Mahr. The lawsuit was quietly settled out of court after Cash reportedly paid Jenkins $75,000. (You can hear both versions below.)
Gordon Jenkins began his career in the 1930s as a multi-instrumentalist working with the big bands, including Benny Goodman’s, but he was much better known later in his career for composing, arranging and conducting for some of the biggest stars around. Included among his collaborators were people like Dick Haymes, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra, with whom he won a 1967 Grammy.
For the records he generated while leading his own band, Jenkins specialized in the kind of easy listening music that has always seemed to be a part of the music scene. Most of his recordings are filled with a lush orchestral sound, heavy with strings, although he did occasionally try other things (like his ‘blues’ song). He had a long career that continued almost up until his death in 1984 from ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
*Ironically, Jenkins ‘borrowed’ the melody (but not the lyrics) from blues musician Little Brother Montgomery.
Gordon Jenkins & Orchestra – “Caravan”
Gordon Jenkins (w/ Beverly Mahr) – “Crescent City Blues”