Interview with Peter Lewry
(this is an edited and updated interview that first appeared in issue #47 of the Johnny Cash Fanzine in June 2006)
Copyright Peter Lewry
Having interviewed many people associated with Johnny Cash in previous issues the tables are turned this time and photographer Alan Messer interviews the fanzine editor about his life, his work on the fanzine and other projects he has been involved in.
Let's start with a few basic questions Peter. Where were you born and in what year?
I was born in Worthing, West Sussex on the south coast of England on 7 October 1956.
And have you lived in Worthing all your life?
All my life, yes.
Where did you go to school and when did you leave?
I went to West Tarring Secondary Modern in Worthing although school was never a favourite period of my life. I left in 1972 and went straight out to work. I left with no qualifications but looking back I have no regrets as I am happy with what I have achieved since then.
So at school were you good at English language and writing?
Not particularly. My best subject was maths but as I said I was never a great pupil.
What was your first job?
It was with an instrument makers. It was a five-year apprenticeship and when you are just fifteen and out of school five years seems a lifetime and I did not stay there very long.
What kind of instruments?
Slide rules and other navigation instruments.
Not musical instruments?
No, although I would have probably stayed the course had it been to do with music.
Which is quite interesting as you went on to play drums?
Well I fooled with them! It was actually my wife Carole who got me started playing drums. I think she got fed up with me tapping my hands and the cutlery on the dining room table and booked me a lesson for my fortieth birthday. I took lessons for just over a year and managed to master the basics although I was never going to get a gig anywhere. A couple of friends played guitar and bass and whilst not in the same league as them we used to practice once a week - mainly blues as it was about the only thing I could keep rhythm with!
You mention your wife Carole. When did you meet her and how old were you when you married?
We met in 1980 when she used to come into the shop where I worked and we were married in August 1982.
What were your early musical influences and who were you listening to when you left school?
I remember The Beatles in the mid to late sixties but it was the early seventies that I really began to take notice of the charts. That era was a time of glam rock so I used to listen to artists like David Bowie, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Suzi Quatro, Slade and T-Rex. This was the music that was all around in those days, in the clubs, discos and on the radio.
Was that the music you were going to the record shops to buy?
Yes, although in those days I was buying more singles than albums. But that soon changed and the record collection started growing. In fact it hasn't stopped.
At some point you made the transition to other types of music, Elvis Presley, Linda Ronstadt and of course eventually Johnny Cash. When did you get into their music?
I became a big fan of country music in the late seventies and early eighties and my musical taste shifted dramatically. Country music had become popular in the UK and artists like Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris and, of course, Johnny Cash began to gain more recognition. It was through my liking of Emmylou Harris that I started to collect a wider range of country music. Both Albert Lee and Rodney Crowell had been in her group, The Hot Band and I started to collect their records along with Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt and Rosanne Cash. However, all through this period I was a huge Elvis Presley fan, and still am.
What was the first Elvis song you heard or the one that got you hooked?
I remember hearing songs like It's Now Or Never, Crying In The Chapel and others when I was growing up but the song that made me take notice was his version of the Buffy St. Marie song Until It's Time For You To Go. Around the same time I went to see the documentary Elvis That's The Way It Is and was completely blown away.
Did you ever get the chance to see Elvis on stage?
Unfortunately not. I had to settle for watching him in the two documentaries Elvis That's The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour and the Aloha From Hawaii special.
And when did you first hear Johnny Cash's music and did you like it?
I remember hearing A Boy Named Sue and I Walk The Line back in 1970 and was immediately taken with his voice and style of singing. Around the same time the San Quentin concert was broadcast on UK television and I became hooked. I gradually built up my collection of Cash vinyl records although it took many years before I was anywhere near owning all his recorded work. Of course I then had to replace everything with CDs!
So your musical transition took you from the early glam pop rock into other genres of British music, such as, Cliff Richard for whom you have done a lot of work including his Summer Holiday Special Edition and Live At Kingston CDs. How did you come to work on these projects?
It was a direct result of the work and research undertaken for the three Cliff Richard books I wrote with my colleague Nigel Goodall. EMI approached us about writing sleevenotes for The Hit List CD and video and from there we went on to work on many different CD and video releases. Both the Summer Holiday and Kingston projects were very special. The 1962 recording of Cliff and The Shadows live in Kingston had been in the vaults for over thirty-five years and, despite their time tucked away and the conditions under which they were recorded the sound is incredible. It is a credit to the engineer, Keith Bessey, who took the tapes and produced such an excellent result.
Summer Holiday was a stylised English 60's film, similar to an Elvis movie and predecessor to another British cult film, The Beatles, Hard Days Night?
That's right and I think Summer Holiday has become the most famous British pop musical and is regularly shown on UK television.
How many books have you written on music?
I have had several books published including the three on Cliff Richard, one on Fleetwood Mac that looked at their recording career and, of course, my Johnny Cash chronicle. My seventh is finished and waiting for a publication date.
Is that the Linda Ronstadt biography?
That's right. All my other books have been reference works whereas Linda Ronstadt: A Life In Music will be my first biography. It traces her career from her early days in Tucson, Arizona through the seventies when she was one of the biggest selling female artists in the States and up to her recent release Hummin' To Myself and the controversy surrounding her live appearance at the Aladdin in Las Vegas. There has been a delay with publication and hopefully it will be published soon!
You have actually worked on over fifty CD and DVD projects. Can you tell us more?
As well as the Cliff projects we talked about earlier both Nigel and I have worked on around fifty of his back catalogue as well as some new compilations. Our work involved the track selection, picture and memorabilia research, sleeve notes and approving artwork.
Fifty Cliff Richard CD projects. Wow, that's fantastic, Peter!
We probably worked on the best of Cliff's career although there are several albums that could still be upgraded and released with improved sound.
Incidentally, I worked as a photographer on the Cliff Richard Show. Do you know Cliff Richard?
I met and interviewed Cliff several times and he was always courteous and happy to help with any projects, as were his management and office staff.
You also put together a chronology and sessionography for Welsh rocker Shakin' Stevens. Tell us a little bit about who Shakin' Stevens is and how you got to work with him?
Shakin' Stevens was the biggest selling artists in the UK throughout the eighties and was one of the three artists who portrayed Elvis in the musical that was staged following Elvis' death in 1977. He had played the clubs for many years with his band The Sunsets and his success was well deserved. My wife was a big fan and we had seen him many times in concert and then the opportunity arose to produce a chronology and session listing for his own personal use. In 2005 he toured the UK and we were fortunate enough to meet him after his show in Worthing.
Another element Peter, is your graphic design experience. Can you tell us about that?
I worked in the print trade for nearly fifteen years as a typesetter/graphic designer at the University of Sussex. I went part time back in 1998 and now work two days a week as a freelance designer. The two days also allow me time to concentrate on the fanzine and other writing projects. My time in the print trade has helped with producing the fanzine which I also design.
Here's a question that everybody keeps asking me about Peter Lewry and the Johnny Cash fanzine. You have mentioned that you first heard Johnny Cash back in 1970, but when did you get involved in creating this fanzine and why?
It was back in 1994 and one day the idea just came to me that there wasn't a magazine produced in this country on Johnny Cash. I had been a subscriber to a magazine called Elvis The Man and His Music which was unlike any other fan magazine and was a serious publication that looked at the music. I wanted to follow a similar style rather than just run a 'fan-club'. Here we are fifteen years later and still going strong.
Fifteen years. That's amazing. How many did you send out in that first year?
When I started the fanzine I was not sure how successful it would be and with an American and European club also running I knew it would be a slow process. I cannot remember exactly but I think we must have mailed out around thirty or forty copies of the first issue. We advertised on the internet and in some of the Country music magazines and by the end of the year that figure had easily doubled.
And how many members do you have signed up today?
We have over two hunderd and fifty plus we send out several complimentary copies to record companies, magazines and people associated with Johnny Cash.
Plus you also have the magazine online?
Yes. Because the fanzine is published quarterly you always find that some news comes in after you have sent the fanzine out. To overcome this we started the website. It had a dual purpose. Firstly to keep people informed of the latest news but also as a way of advertising the fanzine to a wider audience.
When did you start the site?
The website went online in May 2003 and the following year it won the music category at the NTL Best Of British Broadband Awards. There were close to 5000 nominations in all the categories so I was honoured when I found out the site had won.
You also wrote a book about Johnny, called I've Been Everywhere?
That's correct. I wanted to use that title as I felt it summed up John's career. The publisher wanted to include John's name in the title so the full title became A Johnny Cash Chronicle - I've Been Everywhere.
The book is a listing of concerts and recordings. That must have taken some serious research?
Yes it did. The book is a day-by-day chronology of John's career listing his concert appearances, TV shows, record releases and much more.
It's a great thing to do for an artist and an amazing piece of work that many people use for reference. How long did it take to collate and write the book?
I had been collating dates ever since starting the fanzine so I had a head start when I was commissioned to write the book. However, there was still a lot of research that needed doing and it took about six months to actually compile all the information and write the book. I spent a couple of days at the the British Library Sound Archive in London looking through close to forty years of old Billboard magazines, other music papers and books to try to fill some of the gaps. Many people helped during my research but I am indebted to Lou Robin who checked the manuscript and added several entries and corrected some of my mistakes.
What was your inspiration to write the book? Some people collect stamps, some people collect toys, but you collect information about recording artists.
I guess many people would call me an 'anorak' but this type of book had always interested me and there are many similar books in my collection. Both The Beatles and The Beach Boys had books written in this style as did one of the Cliff books so I felt that John's career could be dealt with in the same way.
Do you think Johnny Cash used the book himself to find out the many places he'd been?
I hope so. I know he was given a copy of the book and a few months after publication I received a signed copy from Lou Robin with a message from John written on one of the pages.
Can you remember the message?
It read - "To Peter, Thanks for a really good job. Johnny Cash."
Even with the amount of time and work you put into the book, did you encounter any problems researching this period?
When you are covering a career that spans six decades there are many problems that you come across. The hardest part was finding out the early tour dates. The late sixties onwards were relatively easy to find through old fan club magazines and the tour schedules that Lou Robin sent me but the problems started when I tried to find out his concert dates for the late fifties and early sixties. I know there are gaps from this period, many of which I have subsequently located, but there is still a lot of work to do. I am currently working on a major update.
You met Johnny Cash back in 1997. Can you tell us about the meeting. Was it in his dressing room, before or after the show?
We met John backstage at the Royal Albert Hall in 1997 just before he was due to go on stage. The meeting was arranged by the American Recordings representative in the UK. We also had the opportunity to talk to June and John Carter. If I remember correctly we also went back after the show.
Can you remember what you spoke about? Did you talk about the magazine?
I can remember being introduced as the guy that runs the fanzine in the UK and John replying, "You do a great job for me here in the UK." I can't remember what else we spoke about but I do have a photo he signed for me and a picture of Carole, John and I which hangs in the office.
Besides the show at the Royal Albert Hall how many times did you see Johnny in concert?
I think I went to about fifteen concerts between 1979 and 1997. I also saw him as part of The Highwaymen during their 1992 UK tour. I never saw a bad show, all of them were great.
One of the questions a lot of people would like to know is what are your favourite Johnny Cash songs or albums?
That's a tough one. I really love the American Recordings period and also the material he recorded during his time with Mercury Records. However, if I had to pick a favourite album it would have to be Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. There is no doubt about my favourite song - Man In Black.
Why Man in Black?
I just love the lyrics.
And of course that is the name of your magazine?
It seemed like an appropriate title!
Besides the magazine I believe you have also worked on some Johnny Cash DVD and CD projects?
I wrote the sleevenotes for two projects for Bear Family Records in Germany. The first was the Town Hall Party DVD and the other was a CD of John's foreign language recordings. I also compiled and wrote sleevenotes for a CD entitled The EP Collection which featured all the Sun Records extended play tracks. I also compiled and wrote liner notes for the Johnny Cash The Outtakes set that Bear Family issued. It was good to have a credit as re-issue producer on that one.
Besides Johnny and Cliff have you worked on any other CDs?
I co-wrote the liner notes for the Elvis CD, Live Greatest Hits, which, being an Elvis fan, was something special. I have also written liner notes for a George Jones & Tammy Wynette Duets compilation.
When did you start including interviews in the magazine?
We started including interviews back in 2001. Before that there was a series called The Sound Behind Johnny Cash where we would look at a particular musician and cover his career.
These interviews have been well received. Fans like to get an insight into Johnny Cash, his family, band members colleagues and friends. This is the essence of a fan magazine.
Yes, the interviews gave us the opportunity to find out much more and also to talk to people other than just the musicians.
Who else would you like to interview?
There are several people I would still like to talk to including Marshall Grant, Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, the list is quite long!
Have you spoken to John Carter yet. That would be an interesting interview? I had the opportunity to interview John Carter a few years ago. I was also fortunate to get a short interview with Rosanne Cash when her Rules Of Travel CD was released.
Speaking of Rosanne, I heard she was most complimentary about your work?
Yes, I received a lovely card from her which I reproduced in a recent issue of the fanzine. Rosanne is a fantastic person and was so kind when I met her in Nashville back in 2003.
The Man in Black interviews and stories have taken on a new light, since John's death. Today, the tables have turned, as I interview Peter, MIB founder and editor. Do you often get asked about Johnny Cash?
When I've Been Everywhere was published a couple of local radio stations ran interviews and also some local press printed editorials and photos. The day John died I received several from radio stations, both here in the UK and America, and the press for comments and quotes all in the space of a couple of hours.
When Johnny Cash died his celebrity, fame and sales escalated beyond all expectations. He was already an icon, but what caused his popularity to spread.
Before he died there were many people who knew I ran the fanzine and would often ask me if John was still recording. In fact a few even thought that John had retired many years earlier. Following his death there was a noticeable increase in interest in the fanzine and also his presence on the bookshelf and in the record racks. People began to discover John's music and, of course, Walk The Line has created a further interest in John and his music.
For the decade John worked with Rick Rubin he wasn't touring due to his health, but he was still vital in the studio. Why do you think his music appealed to a younger audience in those final years?
There is no doubt that some of his best work was the material he recorded with Rubin over that ten year period. I think the kind of songs he was choosing to record during this period had an appeal to a wider, and younger, audience. People began to sit up and take notice. Of course he was also getting more press coverage and exposure on radio and TV which brought his music to people who probably never listened to his music before.
When Johnny Cash died how did the news affect you?
I was upset but not surprised. He had been ill for many years and I always felt that once June had passed away John would not be with us much longer. It was hard when I heard the news as John had been a major part of my life especially over the previous ten years.
Since his death, have more people approached you about Johnny Cash?
Definitely. Membership has increased and every week there appears to be new enquiries. I am also finding that I am approached by companies working on projects, for example TV, press and radio, for help with factual information etc. Just before the release of Walk The Line I was appoached by an ad agency in Los Angeles to help with the official Fox Walk The Line website and supplied most of the information that appeared on the family tree and day by day sections. The BBC also approached me to help with the documentary The Last Great American and borrowed several items from my collection.
Many consider John to have been a dark brooding man. How do you see him?
I think that is the image he always gave out and to some extent he probably was a 'dark brooding man' but there was also the other side a kind and sensitive person.
MIB has been going for fifteen years. Do you see it continuing and what are your future plans for the magazine?
Definitely, I have many articles on various aspects of John's career that still need to be written and, as I mentioned earlier, there are many people I would still like to interview. All the time there is news about John to print, new CD/DVD releases to review and articles to be written, the magazine will continue.
Of course, there are still Elvis and Beatles magazines, even though both acts have been gone a long a time. In your own personal opinion and knowledge, Peter, what do you think people have to look forward to in CASH books and music?
I think we have a lot to look forward to. Readers Digest have a set due out later this year and, of course, we are still waiting for American VI! There is still so much material from the seventies and eighties that hasn't been released on CD yet and since finding all the tapes at the House of Cash I am sure we will be enjoying John's music for many years to come.
Do you get to know about forthcoming projects before the general public?
I am privy to information from Lou Robin and Sony/Legacy some of which I use in the fanzine and on the website. I am very fortunate to have built up a good working relationship with Lou, and the people at Sony/Legacy which obviously helps with putting the fanzine together. Do you have time for hobbies? Other than writing, music and the dogs I have little time for any other hobbies.
When you get away from the office to your domestic environment, do you watch television or listen to music or play your drums?
I tend to watch more televison than listening to music when I am at home. Most of the music I listen to is when I am working in the office although walking the dogs does give me the opportunity to use my iPod - which does, of course, include Walking The Dog by Rufus Thomas!! What's on your iPod now? At the moment I am listening to a lot of southern soul music from some of the great studios like Stax and Muscle Shoals. Artists like James Carr, Eddie Hinton, Booker T & The MGs and Carla Thomas. There is also a great number of country, hillbilly, and western swing music including Marty Stuart, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and BR5-49.
Do you ever just sit and listen to Johnny Cash?
Sometimes but most of the Johnny Cash albums get played during my work on the fanzine. However, there are several Cash albums on the iPod, including American V and Personal File, so I do get a chance to listen when I am out walking or travelling. I would say I watch more Johnny Cash DVDs when I am away from the office than actually play CDs.
Thank you Peter for being interviewed in your own magazine.
Thanks Alan, it is a pleasure.