How Johnny Cash Became a Forever Stamp

The photo shoot was routine, like any other Frank Bez had done for Columbia Records. But on that fateful afternoon in 1963, when Johnny Cash gazed at the camera for what would become the cover of Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash, the crooner had no clue he was being immortalized in more ways than one.

It was a good year for Cash, one of his best in a very long time. Things were heating up with June Carter, the love of his life who later helped get him sober, and his career as a singer-songwriter was finally taking off.

“He was always a neat guy, but he had demons,” says Bez, adding that Cash took his craft and persona very seriously, even going so far as to spend days scouting photo locations and downing bottles of beer so he’d feel more comfortable in front of the camera. “I was happy to see his life turn around.”

Bez wasn’t thrilled with the black and white photos he took that day, and Columbia ultimately chose a color shot for the album, which seemed just as well. But fifty years later the photo has surfaced again, this time as part of the U.S. postal service's Music Icons series.

“It completely blew me out of the water,” says Bez. “That was not one of my favorite photos of Johnny.”

But from the moment Greg Breeding, the art director who worked on the stamp, laid eyes on it, he knew it was the one.

Every year, the Postmaster General’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee receives about 40,000 suggestions for what should grace a stamp. Then 30 subjects are chosen. This year, Cash made the cut, which made sense to the postal committee: Cash is not only a country artist but someone whose “influence is felt just about everywhere, from folk to blues and gospel,” they wrote.

“For a graphic designer, it was absolutely a dream job,” says Breeding. “A stamp is a tremendous way to mark something good in culture.”

Breeding had worked on stamps before, as art director for a U.S.P.S. collaboration with France's own mail carrier, The Post, in which Miles Davis and Edif Piaf were featured on the currency. That prepared him to work on the Cash stamp, a plum assignment he couldn't turn down. “We art directors fought [like hell] for it,” he jokes.

[caption id="attachment_65696" align="alignnone" width="640"] Johnny Cash in Memphis, 1957, 56 years before he'd appear on a stamp. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images[/caption]

He remembers his father keeping Cash on rotation, all the way up until he finally left home. “He wore black and he had this booming baritone voice, and he was just larger than life to me,” he recalls. Though he was terrified of the singer as a boy, he came to revere the rock icon better known as "The Man in Black."

Once the stamp's format was decided -- all Music Icons are square to capture the feel of a vintage 45 RPM sleeve -- Breeding dived head-first into the project. The first thing he did was read a biography of the man he grew up with, “to get a better sense of the Johnny Cash story.” He picked up The Man Called Cash by Steve Turner and learned that Cash’s career had spanned nearly five decades. How could he possibly turn a poster-sized icon into a Forever stamp? He could commission a portrait or something else, but Cash “was such an icon,” a photo seemed more fitting.

So Breeding tapped a photo agency, who then provided him with “hundreds and hundreds” of images. He also did a little research of his own, checking Google to turn up hundreds more photos. There would be plenty of legal hoops to jump through later on, but for now all Breeding cared about was finding the perfect picture.

Eventually, he settled on the mid-1950s to early 1960s era, when Cash was at the height of his popularity, or what Breeding calls "his Folsom Prison days." “That was when he dared to be real, authentic and gritty," he says.

Soon afterward, he stumbled on the photo by Bez, which seemed to embody the singer’s persona: those deep, brooding eyes and unmistakable frown. He designed a dozen other different images “just to experiment,” but “all along, I kept coming back to that one.”

Once everyone agreed on the photo, including the creative director, Breeding began the typography. To keep the stamp from looking too goth, he added a complementary bronze border with “an earthy, rustic feel, which corresponds with what Cash represents." He then chose an old typeface called Roebuck, inspired by the design of a stock certificate in the early 20th century, because it was bold and masculine.

Next, he researched Cash and other artists' old album covers to determine how to style the first name. “Most of [the artists' names] were simple, with big block lettering, which I thought was boring,” says Breeding, so he placed Johnny's first name on an arc with woodtype scrollwork “to add a subtle, more human element.” Essentially, the typography reflects both sides of Cash, a deeply talented man burdened by heavy feelings.

As for the photo, Breeding warmed it up a notch, making it richer than Bez's original. When all was said and done, he presented the final image to his creative director and colleagues, who approved of it right away. Then he held a "more formal" meeting with the Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee, who also fell hard for the stamp. The Post Master General did too, and after everything was signed and delivered to Cash's estate -- "they loved it," hands down, recalls Breeding -- the stamp found its home at the printing press.

From the time it was commissioned to the time it was approved, the assignment took Breeding six months.

The Johnny Cash stamp hits stores this summer and will cost 46 cents, equivalent to the First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.