Family of Johnny Cash’s manager donates cache of memorabilia


- Lisa Abram

Photograph of Saul Holiff at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, which appeared in a travel article Holiff wrote about Victoria for the London Free Press in September 1986. Image courtesy of Holiff Family archives/UVic Libraries.

The birth of rock ‘n’ roll took shape in the 1940s and early ‘50s with influences coming from numerous musical genres. A small-town boy from London, Ontario with huge Hollywood aspirations, was one of the first people to bring this new style of music to Canada. Showbiz impresario Saul Holiff started out booking major rock ‘n’ roll acts, then went on to manage music legend Johnny Cash for 13 tumultuous years.

In 2005, Holiff’s son Jonathan discovered a storage locker containing many revealing documents and intimate details about Holiff’s life while on the road with Cash. Now available for scholarly research, an extensive archive of memorabilia recently donated by the Holiff family to UVic Libraries chronicles the highs and lows of this astonishing relationship.

A newly created online exhibit, “Volatile Attractions: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and Managing a Music Legend,” highlights materials from the archives and presents letters, diaries, journals, a memorabilia-and-photo scrapbook, audio recordings and rare photos of Cash.

Johnny Cash being baptized - rare photo now within UVic Archives donated by Holiff family
A rare photo of Cash being baptized in Jordan River is now available within the UVic archive, thanks to the Holiff family donation.

The influence of Saul Holiff

Holiff was born in 1925 to immigrant parents who escaped Ukrainian pogroms to begin life anew in Canada. In his early adult years, Holiff demonstrated a unique talent for tapping into the teenage musical trends of the time. With an entrepreneurial spirit, he started one of the first drive-in restaurants in Ontario, Sol’s Square Boy, specializing in square burgers and ice cream, and used the venue as a launching pad for emerging musical talent who made appearances there.

With his gimmicky nature and flair for promotion, Holiff began his hometown career as a concert promoter, bringing in established and budding recording artists to Canada including Bill Haley and His Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Paul Anka, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly, among others.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll

Holiff wasn’t initially impressed with Cash’s country-influenced sound, as his tastes ran closer to the smooth sounds of jazz. However, when the challenge of concert promotion took priority over his personal musical interests, he saw the success of Cash’s shows and set his sights on making him an international star.

Holiff managed Cash’s career from 1961 to 1973, starting their business collaboration saddled with the singer’s pill addiction and erratic on-and-off-stage behaviour, as well as Cash’s troubled personal life while he was still married to his first wife Vivian. Combined with Holiff’s fastidious nature, their professional union endured many divisions and reconciliations, and rattled the manager’s straitlaced values.

Holiff’s letters to Cash and June Carter attest to his insecurity, annoyance and difficulty managing the singer during this time. Eventually, Holiff took to recording his thoughts and phone conversations with Cash, probably in part to disprove false claims made against him when the singer was agitated and under the influence of alcohol and pills.

Grad student gets ‘stage pass’ to new collection

The acquisition has already provided a valuable experiential learning opportunity for UVic doctoral student Samantha MacFarlane (English), who worked with archivists, librarians and libraries systems staff to develop the new online exhibit.

“Designing the digital exhibit for the Holiff Family archives was an immersive and rewarding experience. I’ve had the good fortune to do archival research for my dissertation before, so I was thrilled at the prospect of working in the archives at UVic, especially once I began to acquaint myself with the items in the collection,” says MacFarlane.

MacFarlane found studying the material to be very rewarding given the discovery aspect of working with archives. Using an open-source digital exhibit platform, she was able to conceptualize, design, research and write an overview of Holiff’s life using source material to populate the web pages.

MacFarlane’s approach to the project was meticulous: first, she examined all the items in the collection, and then handpicked ones to suit the arc of the narrative, mindful that they should also be representative of the Holiff Family archives as a whole.

It’s been an invaluable learning experience. Curating an exhibit requires thorough knowledge of the material, careful planning, and a lot of collaboration with experts in archives, digitization and digital scholarship, metadata, and programming.  We want to make sure the user experience is the best it can be.

—Samantha MacFarlane, Johnny Cash fan and UVic doctoral student who helped develop the new online exhibit

Also included in the exhibit is film material created by Holiff’s son Jonathan for his award-winning feature-length documentary My Father and The Man in Black, as well as items related to Holiff’s family life, education, and personal beliefs on religion, politics and death.

“The Holiff family have provided us with a valuable resource for dynamic objects-based learning that will engage students in primary source research,” adds UVic’s Director of Special Collections and University Archivist Lara Wilson.

With the launch of the new exhibit, its collection of one-of-a-kind documents is now readily available to anyone who wishes to delve further into Holiff’s life, his influence on Cash’s career, and the history of the music industry.

UVic and the Vancouver Island connection

After dropping out of high school to support his family, Holiff had always been interested in education and self-improvement, so when he severed his professional ties to Cash in 1973, Holiff pursued his life-long dream to attend university. After moving to Victoria, Holiff proudly achieved that goal in 1983, receiving his BA in History from UVic.

Firmly ensconced on Vancouver Island and a staunch advocate for the right-to-die movement, Holiff lived out his life in Nanaimo until a time of his choosing.

Cash and Holiff reportedly last saw each other when the country singer performed at the Sports Centre in Victoria in the early 1980s, with 17-year-old Jonathan in tow.

Find out more about the new UVic archive


In this story

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

People: Lara Wilson, Samantha MacFarlane

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