In October 1970, I was part of the local production team that booked and promoted the Johnny Cash touring stage show in Hampton, Virginia. When Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter played the newly opened Hampton Coliseum, their show was one of the most popular acts in show business. Too bad that their performances would be interrupted by the worst thing that can happen to a live stage show.
Johnny’s ABC television variety show, recorded in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, then the home of the Grand Ole Opry, was rated the 17th most viewed television program in 1970. The show began in June 1969, with Joni Mitchell, Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw, comedian Fannie Flagg, and folk legend Bob Dylan as guest performers.
Nearly every star of the folk-country music genre appeared on the show. Cash also featured the legends of country music like Bill Monroe as well as pop stars like Ray Charles, Neil Diamond, Pat Boone, and even jazz great Louis Armstrong in his last television appearance before his death. For the ratings boost, show business royalty like Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas, Peggy Lee, and Lorne Greene came to Nashville to appear on the show.
WCMS, the top-rated country music radio station in the five-city Tidewater, Virginia media market, was owned by Com-Ent Inc. where I was a vice-president. I was thus part of the production team effort to sell out the 13,800 concert seats in the Hampton Coliseum and to handle the financial and logistical details of managing the event.
Although the Hampton Coliseum would go on to successfully host a great lineup of shows including those of Elvis, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Eagles, Elton John, and just about every other major act that toured, the newness of the venue facility that had just opened earlier that year had a critical flaw. The coliseum sound system had bugs.
Evidently, people in the concert sound system business suspected that the Hampton Coliseum system might fail during a major concert because our office was contacted by a portable sound system vendor who had truckloads of giant new speakers, amplifiers, microphones, and sound technicians that he offered in a stand-by role at no charge. Since WCMS promoted a line-up of country music concerts every year, some outdoors, I concluded that the equipment owner was just trying to get his business foot in our door. I thus recommended that we accept the offer, and I arranged for truck parking spaces just outside the Coliseum loading dock.
As the huge audience crowd found their seats, Johnny sequestered himself with June in one of the dressing room suites. In talking to the band members who assembled in the larger Green Room, I was told that Johnny preferred to be alone with June prior to going on stage. In my pre-show contact with him, he was very polite, but reserved, as if preserving his energy. Then with a final tuning of their instruments, you could see the energy surge into Johnny. His posture came erect, and he strode out to the stage as The Man In Black that the audience expected.
I don’t remember how many songs Johnny got through before the Hampton Coliseum sound system failed. The audience was all hyped-up to hear Johnny sing I Walk The Line and Ring of Fire, and to perform Jackson, It Ain’t Me, Babe, and If I Were a Carpenter, his famous duets with June. But when the sound system went out, and it couldn’t be fixed, Johnny, June, and the band departed the stage with the raised hand gestures of “what can we do?” The capacity audience then erupted with outcries of disbelief.
Back stage there was panic and desperate demands to quickly bring the sound system back on line, but the Coliseum management was helpless to correct the complex technical problems. After more than half an hour of blood, sweat, and jeers, we made the decision to summon the outside vendor who then began a rapid set-up of his portable system. The performance stage was a raised platform at one end of the Coliseum floor with the audience seats cupped in layers around it. On stage, it had the feeling of performing in the round. The huge box speakers were designed for outdoor concert use; and when the four primary ones were positioned on the platform, they became monolithic barriers that the performers would have to work around in order to gain sight lines to the audience.
To the credit of Johnny and June, after an hour and a half delay, they returned to the stage and humorously worked around the six-feet tall black speaker boxes in giving a great show. I had witnessed Shirley MacLaine walk off a Chrysler Hall stage in Norfolk after a sound system failure had twice interrupted her act. The second time, she did not return. Johnny and June would have been justified in doing the same, but they didn’t.
After the show, there is a financial reckoning between their accountants and ours. Usually, the bottom line payout from the box office receipts is made by a promoter’s check, but this time the Cash show road manager wanted their share of the box office in currency that would be counted and carried out into the night in brown paper grocery bags. After enduring the sound system ordeal, how could we say no? I witnessed the count. I believe that our country friends walked away with about $83,000 in small bills. That was a lot of money in 1970!
As the Johnny Cash tour buses departed Hampton, our exhausted staff went home feeling that we had dodged live concert’s most fatal bullet: the failed sound system. We were also aware that Johnny Cash had done each of us a huge career favor by returning to the stage after the long delay. Thanks, Johnny. You will always have our gratitude and respect.