Archives of Johnny Cash manager reveal the making of an icon

Libraries

Autographed publicity photo of Johnny Cash (approximately 1958). Image courtesy of Holiff Family Archives/UVic Libraries.

Music legend Johnny Cash had a reputation for hard living and an outsize personality. Fans and researchers can now glean new insights from the perspective of his Canadian manager, Saul Holiff, whose early influence catapulted Cash to celebrity status, but who was only a footnote in the chronicles of Cash’s remarkable career until recently. Memorabilia capturing their astonishing relationship has been donated to the University of Victoria by the Holiff family and includes rare photos of Cash being baptized in the Jordan River and performing at Folsom prison.

On June 20, UVic Libraries will launch the Holiff Family archives with its new online exhibit, “Volatile Attractions: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and Managing a Music Legend.” The exhibit will focus on Holiff’s management years and feature photographs, contracts, correspondence and concert swag representing not only the meticulous nature and immense energy that Holiff dedicated to successfully managing Cash for 13 years, but also illustrating the professional disappointment and personal costs it exacted on Holiff. He committed suicide in 2005, two years after Cash passed away.

“We are honoured the Holiff family chose UVic to care for their archives. By keeping this material together and in making it available for research through a Canadian public institution, Saul Holiff's significant contributions, not only to Johnny Cash's career but also to the development of rock ‘n’ roll and country music, will be better known,” says UVic’s Director of Special Collections and University Archivist Lara Wilson. 

The collection itself consists of thousands of physical items including letters, diaries, journals and audio recordings of phone conversations, as well as extraordinary photographs of Cash and gold records awarded to Holiff, with several terabytes in total of digital material.

“This would have been so meaningful to my father. He was forced to quit school in Grade 9 and go to work—during the Great Depression. His proudest achievement was graduating from the University of Victoria with a BA in History. Education was paramount,” - Filmmaker Jonathan Holiff, who directed and produced a feature-length documentary movie about his father

Holiff managed Cash’s career from 1961 to 1973. He is responsible for pivotal moments in the life of Cash, which include iconic performances at Folsom and San Quentin prisons, and the pairing of country singer June Carter with Cash’s shows in the 1960s.

Holiff began promoting Cash in 1958, after he had already brought many artists to Canada including Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, Paul Anka, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. Born in 1925 in London, Ontario, Holiff was the child of immigrants who escaped the pogroms of Ukraine and began his career in the 1950s as a restauranteur and concert promoter during the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. Years after severing his ties to Cash, Holiff moved to Victoria and received his BA in History from UVic in 1983.

“This would have been so meaningful to my father. He was forced to quit school in Grade 9 and go to work—during the Great Depression. His proudest achievement was graduating from the University of Victoria with a BA in History. Education was paramount,” says filmmaker Jonathan Holiff, who directed and produced a feature-length documentary movie about his father.

On April 15, 2018, the Jack Richardson London Music Awards at the London Music Hall awarded a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award to Saul Holiff.

Special Collections and University Archives is a department of UVic Libraries that acquires, preserves and provides access to rare and unique print and archival material, and related objects, in a variety of subject areas, for learning, research and community engagement.

A timeline of Holiff’s life is available online.

Read the campus article for more on this story.  

A media kit containing high-resolution images of specific material from the collection, as well as audio clips and personal letters, is available on Dropbox.

Link to My Father and The Man in Black movie trailer, the film by Jonathan Holiff.

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Photos

Media contacts

Lara Wilson (Director, Special Collections and University Archivist) at 250-472-4480 or ljwilson@uvic.ca

Lisa Abram (Libraries Communications) at 250-853-3612 (cell) or lisaabram@uvic.ca

Tara Sharpe (University Communications + Marketing) at 250-721-6248 or tksharpe@uvic.ca

In this story

Keywords: music, philanthropy, libraries, special collections, donation

People: Lara Wilson, Samantha MacFarlane


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