Volatile Attractions Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and Managing a Music Legend

A Contract: Part Two

Publicity still of Johnny Cash, c. 1960


Ending his association with Carnall left Cash without a manager; meanwhile, Holiff continued to demonstrate his vision and drive. Convinced that Cash's music transcended genres, he insisted that Columbia Records, Cash's label, should be maximizing his reach to audiences by marketing him as a pop act, not just a country performer.

Holiff was also certain that Cash had international appeal and wanted to scout out the possibility of a tour in East Asia. With Cash's blessing, Holiff took the lead on both prospects, as he mentions in a letter from 12 June 1961: "plan on meeting Columbia officials in New York next week, and hope to leave for Tokyo around the 5th of July."

Their correspondence during this time has a familiar and friendly, even playful, tone, with Cash calling Holiff as "Mr. Volatile" and Holiff addressing him as "Mr. Singer, Song-Writer, Guitar Picker and Cotton Picker" (a reference to Cash's letterhead) in turn.

In the undated copy text for a telegram he sent to Cash from around this time, Holiff wrote that, "[w]hatever happens I regard you as one of the nicest people I know."

Letter from Johnny Cash to Saul Holiff, n.d.



On Cash's end, it was clear that he felt an affinity for Holiff as well. When Holiff inquired about booking country performers Rose Maddox and Bob Luman on one of Cash's tours--which required contacting Stew
Carnall--Cash cautioned Holiff about how to deal with his former manager, writing:

"I called Stew Carnall, asking where you might get in touch with Rose Maddox and Bob Luman, for bookings. (I didn't tell him that you wanted them on our tour.) Stew replied 'Why not let me sell them to Holiff so I can make a commission?' I replied, 'OK.'"

However, wary of Carnall after their failed partnership, Cash offered "A FEW STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL WORDS" about doing business with Carnall in his letter to Holiff, advising him that "Stew will try to snow you" and giving him "top secret" information about the rates that he had paid Maddox and Luman for shows in the past.

Letter from Johnny Western to Saul Holiff, 1 July 1961






Yet, despite this mutual respect and camaraderie, Holiff continued to work in the capacity of booking agent and promoter only. In a letter to Cash from 23 June 1961, he even mentioned that Columbia Records executives "erroneously thought that I am your manager" when he went to meet them in New York before his trip to Asia. 



The fact that Cash and Holiff reached a management agreement can perhaps be credited to the intervention of country singer Johnny Western, who often toured with the Johnny Cash show as emcee and performer and thought highly of Holiff. In the summer of 1961, Western wrote Holiff about an upcoming tour and took advantage of the opportunity to suggest that he reach out to Cash:  


I'm really looking forward to working with you again, Saul. I hope on this next trip that you can reach some sort of management thing with Johnny as he is wandering in a fog, so to speak, now. He is trying to keep his business affairs together and is also booking himself, neither of which is even a little bit successful. He is not a good businessman nor can he or should he be on the phone when the bookers call for a Cash Show. He is in serious need of expert advice on what to record and what to release, Saul, and if ever there was a big star on the brink of disaster, it's Johnny right now unless he has some qualified help immediately. [ . . . ] I personally feel, Saul, that when you return from this trip that you should lay your cards on the table with John and at least offer a management deal as whether he takes it or not, he needs you.

– Letter from Johnny Western to Saul Holiff, 1 July 1961






Items in this collection are available for research, teaching, or private study under this Creative Commons license agreement. For all other uses, please see our About page to contact us.

< A Contract (1958-1961) A Contract: Part Three >