Johnny Cash on Columbo
Johnny Cash as Tommy Brown, homicidal gospel singer
From Bakersfield to Los Angeles, Spring 1974
Episode: “Swan Song” (Episode 3.07)
Air Date: March 3, 1974
Director: Nicholas Colasanto
Credited by: Richard Levinson & William Link
Johnny Cash was born 90 years ago today on February 26, 1932. Following more than a decade and a half of country hits, the Man in Black riffed on his own image as the villainous guest star in the penultimate episode of Columbo‘s third season, airing just a week after his 42nd birthday. (The episode marks the second of two that were directed by Nicholas Colasanto, who may be best known for his role as “Coach” on Cheers. The director gets a subtle nod when Cash’s character refers to his arranger, “Nick Solacanto”.)
Cash guest-starred as Tommy Brown, the charismatic leader of the Lost Soul Crusaders whose superstar fandom among teenage girls—not to mention Lieutenant Columbo’s wife, apparently—seems to be a little more than I’d expect to see from a gospel singer. Either way, Tommy’s mutual affection for young women is a little too much for his wife Edna (Ida Lupino), who confronts the man she dubs “a lustful sinner” with his criminal past, from his years in prison to the statutory rape of their young band member, Maryann (Bonnie Van Dyke).
This being a Columbo episode, we know right from the start that Tommy is the one who engineered the plane crash that took Edna’s and Maryann’s deaths in a burnin’ ring of fire, so the real entertainment comes from watching the cat-and-mouse between Cash—easing comfortably into one of the few affable antagonists on the series—and his new “little buddy,” the rumpled detective so doggedly on his trail who ultimately determines that “any man who can sing like that can’t be all bad.”
What’d He Wear?
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he’s a victim of the timesI wear the black for those who’ve never read
Or listened to the words that Jesus said
About the road to happiness through love and charity
Why, you’d think he’s talking straight to you and me
— Johnny Cash, “Man in Black”, recorded 1971
Tommy Brown shares more than a few biographical details and characteristics with the real Johnny Cash, not just his stardom in the music world but also his past service in the Air Force and his fondness for black clothing. In fact, Tommy clearly “borrows” his wardrobe from the star’s own closet, as there are distinctive details that are consistent with what photo and video records show from this era in the Man in Black’s life.
At the start of the episode, Tommy wears a black knee-length belted trench coat as he arrives at the Bakersfield arena where his band will be performing that evening, though we never see the coat again after this scene.
Through the entire episode, Tommy cycles through identical long-sleeved shirts made of a black heavy twill, tailored to be worn untucked with short vents on each side. These shirts bear stylistic similarities to a stage-worn shirt from that same year, custom-made for Cash by Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors of North Hollywood, with more photos and details available at this Lelands auction listing.
The black shirts have a plain front (no placket) with six black sew-through buttons, including one at the neck that he always wears undone. The tall point collar is built to retrain its structure even when worn open-neck. The set-in sleeves are shirred at the shoulders and finished with two-button barrel cuffs. A horizontal yoke extends across the back, with two jetted pockets set-in on each side of the chest.
Occasionally, Tommy adds a touch of color via a navy paisley-printed cotton bandanna, tied like a neckerchief under the collar of his shirt.
Few can wear black shirt and pants together as authentically as Johnny Cash, and he brings this sartorial panache to Tommy’s wardrobe via his plain black flat front trousers, held up by a black leather belt that we only glimpse when the silver-toned buckle shines from his waist after he’s knocked from his stool during his first house party as a recent widow. Styled with side pockets, these trousers are tight through the leg but flare out at the bottoms, which are finished with turn-ups (cuffs).
Apropos his cowboy attitude, Tommy wears a set of black leather plain-toe boots with calf-high shafts that close with brass-toned zippers along the inside. (As seen under his leg cast, he wears black socks, not an unexpected choice given the overall color scheme.)
As the boots are almost certainly Cash’s own footwear, they could have been made by Moresci like this pair of authentic Cash-worn ankle boots that was auctioned by Julien’s Live in December 2010.
Tommy wears gold jewelry that was likely also Cash’s own personal items, including a gold necklace, an etched gold ring on the third finger of his right hand, and an elegant gold wristwatch worn on a flat gold bracelet.
This watch—which does not appear to be a Rolex, said to be Cash’s favorite watch brand—has a narrow gold case with a flat crown and a minimalist champagne-hued dial with no evident hour markers.
For the episode’s final act that finds Tommy preparing to go on tour, he pulls on a unique indigo-blue denim jacket that blends trucker jacket sensibilities with the cut of a chore coat. The upper portion resembles a traditional trucker jacket, with a shirt-style collar and five silver-toned rivet buttons up the front. Two set-in chest pockets are covered with a button-down pointed flap, the top of each aligning with the horizontal chest yoke. The tab sewn on the right side of the left pocket flap informs us that this was made by Levi’s, with the use of an orange tab denoting the venerated denim outfitter’s more offbeat items of the era. (You can still find ’70s vintage examples of these unique chore jackets from secondhand sites like Bidstitch and eBay.)
A pleated strip extends down from the yoke on each side to form the narrow top of the patch pocket positioned each hip, with a curved cutaway entry just above hand level. The waistband is a separate piece around the entire mid-section of the jacket, creating a belt-like effect. The back has a yoked piece that tapers out from the armholes down to the waistband, where two long double vents extend down to the hem, like a sports coat. The set-in sleeves are finished with a single-button barrel cuff, like a trucker jacket.
What to Imbibe
Upon his second meeting with Lieutenant Columbo, Tommy offers “brandy or bourbon… you look more like a beer man,” before cracking open a bottle of something else for himself.
What to Listen to
Given Tommy Brown’s gospel metier, his rendition of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” permeates the episode, but if you’re looking for something from the Man in Black’s classic catalog, Cash’s recording “Sunday Morning Coming Down”—penned by his pal and future co-Highwayman Kris Kristofferson—is also heard several times, first from the portable radio owned by Jeff (Douglas Dirkson) the airport mechanic and again performed live by “Tommy” at his party following his wife’s death.
The episode also marked the public debut of Cash’s signature black Martin D-35 guitar, made on request without the knowledge of the company president, C.F. Martin III. Martin had been against producing black guitars and didn’t know that his company had made one for the star until he saw it in this episode.
Whatever backlash Martin’s luthiers may have faced for crafting the one-of-a-kind guitar was likely soon quashed as the black D-35 became a staple of Cash’s public performances for two decades to follow, to the point that Martin now offers the all-black “D-35 Johnny Cash” as a tribute to the Man in Black.
How to Get the Look
Few could follow the Man in Black’s signature style without looking like they’re trying too hard to crib from Johnny Cash.
- Black heavy twill tailored shirt with tall point collar, six-button plain front, two jetted chest pockets, side vents, and set-in sleeves with shirred shoulders and two-button barrel cuffs
- Navy-blue (with white paisley print) cotton neckerchief
- Black flat front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Black leather belt with silver-toned buckle
- Black leather plain-toe boots with inside-zip calf-high shafts
- Black boot socks
- Indigo-blue denim half-belted chore jacket with shirt-style collar, five silver-toned rivet buttons, two flapped chest pockets, two curved-entry patch hip pockets, single-button cuffs, and long double vents
- Gold necklace
- Gold etched ring
- Gold dress watch with minimalist champagne dial on flat gold bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the series. You can also read a fine review of the episode at Columbophile, which is an essential resource for fans of the show!
You’re a sanctimonious hypocrite of a bible-spoutin’ blackmailer, and I’ve given you your last chance to be fair!