Jason Setnyk

Interview with Johnny Cash legendary drummer WS Holland

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Cornwall Ontario – Johnny Cash introduced WS Holland as the “father of the drums”, and for four decades WS Holland was the drummer for the man in black. Before that, WS Holland drummed for Carl Perkins; he also drummed in recorded sessions with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and many other notable musicians including Jerry Lee Lewis. He was the very first person to play drums at the Grand Ole Opry. Now, WS Holland is being nominated for the Tennessee Music Network Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I’m really thankful, it means so much to me. All I did for 63 years now was sit on a stool and play drums behind somebody singing the songs, and they became big stars. I never thought of getting any kind of award, but I am really thrilled about the nomination,” WS Holland stated.

Voting for the Lifetime Achievement Award ends on July 22nd, 2017. For those who wish to cast a ballot, here is the website: http://www.tnmusicnetwork.com/

WS Holland is most famous for drumming in Johnny Cash’s band the Tennessee Three. They toured the world, sold over 15 million albums, and recorded hit songs like “Ring of Fire”, “I Walk the Line”, “Boy Named Sue”, and “Folsom Prison Blues”. In 1968 Johnny Cash, along with June Carter, Carl Perkins and the Tennessee Three (including WS Holland) recorded a live album at Folsom Prison. It launched Johnny Cash from star to super stardom.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wG0fS4DoGUc&w=560&h=315]

“Folsom Prison was just like any other show we played, and we didn’t think anything about it. The audience was great, nothing happened, and there was no danger. Everybody was nice. I think, the audience with that show at Folsom Prison, and the audience at San Quentin the next year, that the audience reaction was one of the big things that started Johnny Cash into super stardom. People ask me now, why did we play so many prisons? Besides Folsom, and San Quentin, we played many prisons. I use to make a joke about it, that John(ny Cash) says the reason he likes to play those prisons is because if he happens to do something they don’t like, they can’t leave,” said WS Holland with a chuckle.

Both of the Johnny Cash live prison albums reached number 1 on the Billboard country music charts, and a music legend was born.

WS Holland, who recently toured Canada with Ron Haney and the Ring of Fire Johnny Cash tribute band, visited London Ontario. This is a city where something very special happened nearly 50 years ago. On February 22nd, 1968 Johnny Cash proposed to June Carter. She said yes, and a few weeks later they were married. Behind the drumkit, WS Holland didn’t hear the proposal. He only found out about it backstage after the show.

“We had just finished a tour in Canada, Ron (Haney) and I, with the Ring of Fire band, and we played the town that happened in. It happened in London Ontario. The fact is, the instant it happened, I didn’t even know it happened. I was wondering what we were going to do next, I didn’t realized it happened until the show was over, and we got off stage talking about it. Now, it seems like a real big deal, but at the time it happened, I didn’t realize it. It’s something great to talk about now. I wish I had been paying a bit more attention to what was going on, instead of being concerned about what was going to happen next,” WS Holland explained.

WS Holland also drummed on the “Million Dollar Quartet” sessions that took place December 1956 at Sun Studios in Memphis. In 2010, there was Broadway musical titled “Million Dollar Quartet”, that was loosely based on the real impromptu session by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.

“A lot of people don’t really realize what happened or what caused it to happen. Even if you have seen the play, they don’t describe exactly what happened. That it was a recording session Sam Phillips set up for Carl (Perkins), his two brothers, and I, to record the release after “Blue Suede Shoes”, it was “Matchbox”. When we got to the studio, Sam had hired Jerry Lee Lewis to work with us. Nobody had any idea that Elvis and John(ny Cash) was going to drop by. We found out later when they did drop by, John(ny) and Elvis heard that we were in town. That was at the end of the year in 1956. We all met each other in 1954 and 1955, and in 1955 and 1956 we toured all over the country. Elvis and John(ny) walked into the door, nobody knew they were coming. When they came in, we stopped, and said how are you doing. They started singing some songs. If you look at the picture, you’ll see Elvis sitting on the piano stool, playing the piano. I make a joke that Jerry Lee Lewis says get off that piano stool, let me sit down, and show you some hot licks. They sang and played. We didn’t know what they were going to do, and they didn’t know what they were going to do,” WS Holland recalled.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyO9YL2lLoI&w=560&h=315]

The “Million Dollar Quartet” sessions would have been forgotten over time had two things not happened.

“There are two things that happened, had it not happened, nobody wouldn’t have known about it. One of the things that happened was that Jack Clements, that was running the recording, decided to go next store and get a sandwich. He didn’t think anything of it, but he left the recorder running. Big reel to reel tapes. If he hadn’t done that, nobody would have known about it. The other thing, Sam (Phillips) did think to call a photographer to make a picture with them all. If he hadn’t thought to do that, it wouldn’t have happened. I kidded with Sam later, Sam if you’d really been smart, you’d have had the photographer pan over about 3 feet, and I would have been in the picture, and then it would have been a famous photo. That gets a laugh every time I tell it,” WS Holland stated with a grin.

What was it like being in the studio with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash? No big deal, because they weren’t really famous yet. When WS Holland was drumming for the “Million Dollar Quartet”, he was concerned about making $11 for his work.

“People ask me for years now, what was it like to be in the studio with all those big stars. I try to explain, I wasn’t in the studio with any big stars. They became big stars later. There was only one thing I was concerned about that night. It was the beginning of the time that Sam was having to keep time and pay union scale for a session. Union scale was $11, and I was just concerned about my $11. It didn’t really become a big deal for everyone, until years after that, when that play was performed all over the country. It’s really a big deal now, and an entertaining show for everyone to see. They had to add a lot of things to it, to make it a little more entertaining than us just doing that session, but if you get a chance go, you’ll like it”, WS Holland added.

WS Holland also drummed for Bob Dylan when Dylan did a duet session with Johnny Cash, and the song “Girl From the North Country,” appeared as the opening track on Bob Dylan’s album “Nashville Skyline” with Holland on drums.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOC3TsE1kX0&w=560&h=315]

“That was another big honour for me. I didn’t think a lot about it while it was happening, but now, it’s a big deal to a lot of people, and it’s a big deal to me. I am honoured to just tell people, did I play on that session? Yes! To be on a session with Bob Dylan is another great experience, and I honour it highly,” WS Holland responded.

WS Holland, who grew up by the Tennessee River, never imagined himself as a musician. In fact, he only picked up his first drumkit days before a recording session Carl Perkins invited him to.

“Actually, what happened, it’s kind of a weird strange story. I had just graduated school, I was out of high school for a year. I had a good job at an air conditioner place. I never thought during my school days about playing any kind of instrument. The schools I went to didn’t have a band, and I was more mechanically inclined. I met Carl (Perkins) and his brothers. We lived in the same little town, close to Jackson, Tennessee – Bemis. I’d go to some of the places they were playing. Small clubs. For some reason, some of the up tempo songs, I would walk up beside Clayton, Carl’s younger brother, who played the big upright bass, and with my hands on the side of the cover for the bass, I would keep time to the song. It sounded kind of like a bongo drum,” WS Holland explained.

“I was at a place one Saturday night, and Carl said we have a session with Sam Phillips on Thursday, and said I’m going to try to get a record contract with Sun. Buy some drums, and go with us. I said, what would I do with drums, I can’t play drums. He said, you keep time hitting that bass cover, you can play drums. I found this guy who had some drums, and told him, I want to borrow your drums, and I told him for what. He said, I don’t mind you have the drums, but you can’t play. I said, if you let me have them, I’ll be playing by Thursday. He let me have them. I went to my mom’s house, set them up (backwards) and practiced… I got into my car on Thursday morning and drove over to Memphis, went in and we played a song that Sam liked. We got a recording contract that day. Years later I asked Carl, why did you ask me to go to Memphis with you to make a record, knowing that I didn’t know how to play. He said, I wanted to pull up in front of Sun Records in a Cadillac car and you are the only person I knew who had one. I tell all the young people now, if you want to get into the music business, first get yourself a Cadillac car,” said WS Holland with a smile.

A year later Carl Perkins and his band were a commercial success launching what would become known as rock and roll.

“I started out in 1954 with Carl Perkins. In 1955 we did the big record, the first that sold over a million on Sun, and the first record to go #1 on all the charts, and it was in the beginning of rock and roll, and it was “Blue Suede Shoes”.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRNyvO4QouY&w=560&h=315]

Soon other artists were covering Carl Perkins songs. In 1956 Elvis covered “Blue Suede Shoes”, and in 1962 The Beatles covered “Matchbox”.

In 1960, WS Holland planned to retire his drum kit and put his stick away permanently, until he got a call from the man in black – Johnny Cash.

“Carl (Perkins), Clayton, and I worked together until 1960. I was going to retire, but got a call from Johnny Cash. He didn’t have a drummer, and he wanted me to go with him to an engagement in New York, in a big building. We played a lot of tours together, and I think we’re going to need some noise, and I heard you play, and you’re pretty noisy. So I went with him for two weeks, and those two weeks lasted till 1997. I had a great time playing all over the world almost, in the Johnny Cash band. When I joined it was the beginning of the Tennessee Three. In 1997, when John(ny) didn’t feel like working anymore, I was going to retire again. Then my friend Ron Hainey said no, you can’t retire, let’s keep playing, so we got the WS Holland Band together, and here I am, still at it, and looking forward to touring all this year, and as long as I can.

The recent Canadian tour was a fundraiser for Canadian Mental Health Association National to help battle PTSD.

“The tour in Canada it was a fundraiser, and I was just tickled to go do this. Every house was full, great audience, and had a great time. I think they’ll probably want us to come back up and do it again, and we’ll be glad to do it. I enjoy doing any kind of a fundraiser for people that need things done for them. I had a great time. Cornwall, that was our last night. I’m looking forward to going back,” WS Holland concluded.

To view some fantastic photographs from the Cornwall concert visit Kevin O’Neill’s page KOphotography on Facebook, and be sure to like the page. Here is the link: