Johnny Cash is a legend that will forever live within our imaginations. From his early beginnings with Sun Records, to his Hollywood biopic, Cash has always been the larger-than-life “Man In Black.” His baritone voice told famous tales of tough, steel-driving men and gun-blazing sons of anarchy, and the Arkansas-born Cash carved his own rough-hewn legacy out of a granite-hard life.
Cash was famous for his close, family-oriented lifestyle. Shunning the insincere party crowds early on in his profession, Cash was an artist that became a deeply religious man, preferring to spend time with wife June and his small circle of friends instead of basking in the fast lane limelight.
Asbury Park’s own Henry Vaccaro was one of those special individuals that left a gravitating impression on Cash, and he was eventually adopted into the Carter/Cash inner-circle.
Vaccaro has been a fan of Johnny Cash since his teens, listening to Cash’s stark honky-tonk on the family record player while he sat outside in his Corvette Stingray. It was the summer of 1957 and Vaccaro was highly tuned into the Cash “Boom, Chicka-Boom” sound. His eventual face-to-face introduction to the Man In Black came around 1973 at a post-show gathering that saw Vaccaro utter a few brief words, and shake the hand of his idol at the backstage meeting.
Told with a Saturday afternoon back porch lilt, Johnny Cash Is A Friend Of Mine takes the reader on a rural tour of historic meetings, whirlwind jet flights, famous gatherings and tour bus destinations. The surrounding focus on their time in the Bahamas also reminded me of the heady days of Hemingway’s 1940 Cuba.
Vaccaro is unapologetic in his direct style of prose, dropping names, locations and jet-setting facts that most of us could only dream about, but at no time does he leave me with the impression of overindulgent sycophant. His documented friendship with Johnny Cash reads as a genuine and heartfelt dedication to someone who Vaccaro obviously had a special affinity toward, and someone whom Cash trusted amongst a vast sea of groveling hangers on.
The book starts off with an explanation of how Cash and Vaccaro ultimately became more than fan and idol, vocalizing Vaccaro’s involvement in a brand new guitar company that would lead to a 30-year period of close friendship with the Arkansas singer.
The Kramer guitar story is New Jersey folklore. Vaccaro goes into a fair amount of detail in the book, describing how he was approached by a very young Dennis Berardi in 1975 and was eventually convinced to become an investor in the budding company. As Vaccaro lays out timelines, talking up players (Eddie Van Halen) and luthiers (Phil Petillo and Paul Unkert are both mentioned in the book), he winds a complex tale of risk taking and intuitive machining pioneering that took a little company that barely managed to squeak out 500 guitars a year, and turned it into a guitar manufacturing gold mine, pumping out over 70,000 guitars a year and becoming a household name throughout the musical world.
Stories fire from Vaccaro like charges from a canon. Adventures such as Vaccaro’s invitation to fly down to Atlanta to hang out with Johnny and June during the stars’ roles in the movie Murder In Coweta County tells cloak and dagger tales of attempted murder. Apparently due to the racially sensitive script topic of a white man being executed due to the testimony of a black man in a southern state, someone cut Cash’s brake lines, but the act was discovered before he got behind the wheel. Cash had also received several death threat calls on location as well. But this is also the point where Vaccaro, sitting in a tour bus on the set of that film, introduced Asbury Park, NJ to June and his aspirations on purchasing the Berkeley Carteret Hotel. This conversation led to June getting Johnny curious and eventually led to Cash being the first active partner in the purchasing of the Berkeley Carteret Hotel.
Once again, Vaccaro’s written recollections employ a laid-back continuity, rolling out cranial databanks with a pleasant, casual direction and caring more about his message than the literary way in which he delivers it. The 23 chapters are fascinating, and Vaccaro doesn’t hold back when it comes to telling everything you want to know. From his destiny-packed introduction to Johnny Cash, to troubling times with financial woes, bankruptcy and subsequent loss of his beloved friend, Vaccaro doesn’t flinch when he speaks to the reader.
Recognizable achievements pepper Johnny Cash Is A Friend Of Mine. The fact that Asbury Park was and continues to be a growing destination was really spearheaded by Cash and Vaccaro during a time when Asbury Park was a barren, Bronx-like wasteland. Johnny Cash was a beacon of pure hope, and Vaccaro ushered him in like a true believer.
The famous 1985 sold-out, two-night performance at the Paramount Theatre coincided with the reopening of the Berkeley Carteret, and it was an integral match that lit the fuse of the beginning oceanfront resurgence that has returned the oceanfront to much of its former glory.
Vaccaro also confesses to “redeveloping” his religious connections through the influential vibrations of Cash. Never one to pry, Cash simply revived sleeping feelings of personal belief as they flew through a particularly tricky storm one night, and Vaccaro tells the story like a repentant sinner at an old-time revival. Plagued by economic and personal collapse, Vaccaro saw the light of his existence, and his reconnection with his maker continues to this very day.
Charming anecdotes include the June Carter Cash story of how an early J.C. once ripped his pants wide-open on stage, and later, as he threw a huge fit in the dressing room, June said to him, “Johnny, the good lord was just sending you a message: You’re getting too big for your britches!”
Other hilarious stories abound, including one about Johnny and Henry pulling “square headed groupers” (bales of marijuana) out of the ocean, or Johnny getting attacked by an out of control ostrich that put him in the hospital. I was especially interested in chapter 16, which, while I won’t give it all away, is a detailed account of telling the public that Jon Bon Jovi “ain’t no Johnny Cash.”
This is an enjoyable book for both hardcore Cash fans and lovers of local history and location lore. Like I said earlier, Vaccaro tells it straight when it comes to his 30-plus year oddity that took him from Belmar to Bimini in his travels with the Man In Black.
Daughter Rosanne Cash sums it up best as she says of Henry and his book, “I have wonderful memories of my dad’s decades-long friendship with the wonderful Henry Vaccaro, and his book vividly brought them back to life. Henry’s conversational tone and crystal clear recollections make Johnny Cash Is A Friend Of Mine instantly engaging.”
With over 156 pages of stories, photos and little-known facts, Johnny Cash Is A Friend Of Mine is a guaranteed enjoyable cover-to-cover read for anyone that has a passion for musical history and the colorful players that kick-started the redevelopment of the Jersey Shore.
The book is still available for purchase at Amazon and information is available over at facebook.com/JohnnyCashIsAFriendOfMineByHenryVaccaro.