Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Johnny Cash’s Vancouver Island connection

The digital archives of the Canadian who made Johnny Cash a superstar are coming to the University of Victoria.

The digital archives of the Canadian who made Johnny Cash a superstar are coming to the University of Victoria.

Next month, Jonathan Holiff and the University of Victoria Libraries are launching the Saul Holiff archives at UVic’s Mearns Centre for Learning. The collection, entitled Volatile Attractions: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash and Managing a Music Legend, will be available starting June 20.

Holiff, who was born in London, Ont., launched Cash from a country-and-western singer into an international artist. Holiff was Cash’s manager from 1960 to 1973. He also introduced Cash to June Carter, the love of his life.

Holiff handled the bookings and the no-shows, the divorce and the marriage, the arrests and the trials. But he was also there for the good times — the recordings of Folsom Prison Blues at Folsom Prison and Cash’s greatest hit A Boy Named Sue.

“All of us at the university are honoured the Holiff family chose this institution to care for their archives,” said Lara Wilson, director of special collection and university archivist. “The UVic archives not only acquires and preserves rare and unique material, it provides access to those materials to the community for learning, research and general interest.

“The material speaks to Saul Holiff’s significant contributions, not only to Johnny Cash’s career, but also to the development of rock ’n’ roll and country music. Our online exhibit will feature a selection from the extensive collection. Not only will this material be of interest to the members of the public and cultural historians, it’s a significant resource for dynamic objects-based learning that will engage students in primary-source research.”

Nanaimo author Julie Chadwick saw Holiff’s archives when she interviewed Jonathan about a documentary he had created about his father.

“I saw Saul’s scrapbook, which, in a way, is a map to the rest of the archive. Saul put everything he thought was important into that scrapbook,” said Chadwick. “When I realized how much of a role Saul had played in Johnny’s career … I suddenly thought: ‘Wow, there’s something really significant going on here.’ ”

Her book, The Man Who Carried Cash, is based on the archive, which includes 65 hours of audio diaries, recordings of Holiff’s phone calls with Cash in the early 1970s, and hundreds of photographs, letters and telegrams.

“It contains all the pieces you need for a really great story. There are so many fantastic Canadian clippings from newspapers and magazines,” said Chadwick. “There are hundreds and hundreds of photos which have never been seen before. And then the emotional component, the audio diaries that are narrating you through it.”

Holiff made the audio diaries sitting in his office alone, talking into his tape recorder.

“It’s a strange thing,” said Chadwick. “I think he audio-taped them as a form of therapy. Men in that era were told not to really talk about their feelings. And his job was so incredibly stressful and emotional at times. He had such a strong bond with Johnny, and it was really difficult trying to manage someone who was in the throes of addiction.”

The diaries are poignant. Holiff was an eloquent, intellectual person and the way he expressed himself was fascinating, she said.

The phone calls were probably recorded because of Cash’s volatile nature, she said. As manager, Holiff was responsible for Cash’s legal issues, and Cash missed a lot of concerts and tours.

Chadwick is thrilled Holiff’s archives are coming to UVic. Many of the items reveal the balancing act, a delicate back and forth, played by the music manager and his famous client, who was arrested at the height of his fame. Holiff doesn’t want to be just a yes man and tell Cash what he wants to hear. He wants to push him creatively, but knows he has to be accommodating, said Chadwick.

“There’s a lot of really neat, significant pieces people will be able to access. There’s a 10-page letter that Johnny wrote to Saul at what I consider to be the rock bottom of his life in 1967. He’s crying and he’s saying that June’s going to leave him. The divorce is final and he’s been waiting to be with her for five years and now it looks like June’s going to leave him because of his addiction and stuff. There will be really cool pieces like that that people will be able to read in their entirety.”

The archives are also a fascinating look into the 1960s, the era of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

And Holiff’s own story is remarkable, said Chadwick. He was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, who struggled during the Depression. As a child, he sold fruit and vegetables door to door to help the family.

Holiff served in the army. After he was released in 1945, he hitchhiked to Hollywood in his service uniform.

“It was a fascinating place. He went to the Hollywood Canteen set up by Bette Davis, staffed by famous Hollywood actresses who danced with servicemen.”

In the late 1950s, Holiff was one of the first people to bring rock ’n’ roll to Canada.

“Having people know this piece of history through one man’s story, I’m really glad that’s getting out there.”

Holiff left Cash in 1973 and retired to Victoria in the early 1980s. He earned an honours degree in history from UVic in 1983.

He and his wife lived here for about 15 years, then moved to Nanaimo. After his death in 2005, his son discovered a storage locker filled with memorabilia.

In March, Holiff was awarded a lifetime achievement award and inducted into the Jack Richardson London Music Hall of Fame.