“A Boy Named Sue” was a million-seller and it happened only nine days after it reached the peak of Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart. This record was the only single in Johnny Cash’s second prison album recorded in San Quentin. It was written by Shel Silverstein. Even though this song was a monster hit, it only landed on the No. 2 spot in the pop chart.

A Song from a Party

A few days before Johnny Cash’s San Quentin performance, he hosted a big party at his house on Old Hickory Lake just outside Nashville.  That kind of party was what artists called a “Guitar Pull”. A lot of known performers and writers gather and sing some songs they’ve recorded or written or something they wanted to record. That was the first time Johnny Cash encountered “The Boy Named Sue.”

Big-named artists came and performed in the party like Bob Dylan, who sang “Lady Lady Lay” and Kris Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee.” Then there was Shel Silverstein, he performed his new song “A Boy Named Sue”. Johnny Cash liked the song and he asked Shel to write down the lyrics of the song for him.

No Rehearsal Needed

Along with June Carter, Johnny Cash was on their way to San Quentin to do the concert the following week. She asked if he brought the song “A Boy Named Sue and Johnny said he did. However, he didn’t have the chance to rehearse the song yet, he had doubts that he couldn’t perform the song. The loving wife had a solution, she told him to just read the lyrics and the inmates will love it. Watch below to see how the inmates laughed as they watch the performance of the Man in Black.

Even though Johnny Cash was undergoing a spiritual reformation during those times, he read the lyrics verbatim in that performance. He even said the lines “Son of a gun.”  He said in his autobiography, “Man In Black,” that it took a while for a cleaner language to catch up with his newfound religious nature. As it turned out, the song was funny and the prisoners loved his performance.  That San Quentin performance marked the first day of a long tradition of Johnny Cash performing in prison crowds.