PhD student Samantha MacFarlane researched, designed and developed an online exhibit based on memorabilia donated by the family of Saul Holiff to the University of Victoria including photos and personal letters during his time managing legendary singer Johnny Cash. The Volatile Attractions exhibit is seen in the new UVic archive in Victoria. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

B.C. university offers online glimpse into the life of Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash memorabilia donated by family of his longtime Canadian manager who went to university

The University of Victoria has a new online exhibit of Johnny Cash memorabilia donated by the family of his longtime Canadian manager who pursued a history degree at the university after guiding the singer known as the Man in Black through his most turbulent years and breakthrough to international stardom.

The university says fans and researchers can use the archive to get new insights from the perspective of Saul Holiff, whose scrapbook and audio diary of his days with Cash include rare photos of the singer performing at Folsom prison and candid recorded telephone conversations about the music business.

“I couldn’t be happier about this, mostly because it would have made my father very happy,” said Jonathan Holiff, who discovered his father’s collection in a family storage locker in Nanaimo, B.C. “He always placed a supreme importance on education, and so I know he would be especially pleased and proud to have this a permanent collection.”

The exhibit, “Volatile Attractions: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash and Managing a Music Legend,” is on display at the university’s McPherson Library as part of its special collections.

“It really is an amazing glimpse into Saul’s life from beginning to end,” said Lara Wilson, the university’s archivist and special collections director. “He was Johnny Cash’s manager at this very critical time where he played at Folsom Prison, got the television program and pushed Johnny to get out into so many venues.”

Jonathan Holiff’s 2012 documentary “My Father and the Man in Black” explored his relationship with his father and the parallels of his father’s life with Cash. He said the exhibit brings him closer to his father, who died by suicide in 2005.

He said he found his father’s audio diaries deeply personal even though many conversations are between Saul Holiff and Cash. Also among the recordings are therapy-like sessions that Holiff conducted with himself, speaking at length of personal struggles with acceptance in the fast-paced entertainment world and his attempts to be a strong provider and father figure, his son said.

“It made the greatest emotional impact on me because I was unexpectedly hearing my father’s voice,” Holiff said. “It was very powerful to the extent I felt like my father was talking to me across the years. My father was a self-aware, flawed human being and he knew it.”

Holiff said the exhibit also reveals the great extent to which his managerial duties involved having to smooth over the many scrapes the singer embroiled himself in during days of excessive alcohol and drug use in the 1960s and early 1970s.

In Vancouver in 1961, Holiff covered the bill at the Hotel Georgia after Cash went on a rampage and smashed hallway chandeliers with a guitar.

But the exhibit also includes details of Cash’s on stage marriage proposal to June Carter during a February 1968 concert at London, Ont., where Holiff was born. The proposal was included as a scene in the Hollywood movie “Walk the Line” about Cash and Carter.

Samantha MacFarlane, a PhD student at the university who researched, designed and developed the online exhibit, said the scrapbook with its handwritten letters, reviews, photos, posters, brochures, and tour documents and receipts reveals the depth of the relationship between Holiff and Cash.

In one handwritten note from Cash to Holiff dated 1961, the singer recounts a recent tour of the Pacific Northwest.

“Just returned from the northwest. Very good,” said Cash. “All time record crowd in Victoria. My first time there.”

MacFarlane said Holiff often brought Cash into Canada, starting with tours of northern Ontario and the Maritimes, but he had bigger plans for the singer.

“It was Saul who was really the one who had this grand vision,” she said. “Saul was basically instrumental in making Cash an international star because he had this vision for him playing these bigger venues and not just pigeon-holing him as a country star but really marketing him as this unique cross over performer.”

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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