“Five Minutes to Live”: Death Sentence Commuted to 18 Years

My heartfelt appreciation to Brian Horrorwitz of Trash Palace for introducing me to a great tune that was sung by Johnny Cash and featured in a mediocre film in which he starred:

I am especially in awe of Luther Perkins’ guitar lines, who plays exactly the right notes and not a single note more.  Luther’s terse instrumental passage preceding each verse captures perfectly the unrelenting dread – one imagines – of those awaiting execution, while the economy of his playing thrills me in the same way that complex and showy musicianship used to knock me out when I was a wide-eyed teen.

But if you search all of Cash’s Columbia single releases, you will discover that this obvious A-side was never issued as a 45 — nor was it released on any of Johnny’s Columbia albums either.  Neither was it issued as part of a soundtrack album for Five Minutes to Live (a.k.a., Door-to-Door Maniac), as far as I can tell.  Thus, this song, born in 1960, remained in solitary confinement for 18 years until the 1978 release of The Unissued Johnny Cash by Bear Family, (the German reissue label that compiles lavish and scrupulously annotated box sets of American roots rock, country & blues artists) – and even then, it was only available to U.S. fans as a pricey import.

Five Minutes to Live poster

Is it possible that the heavyweight topic of capital punishment made the song too sensitive for radio play?

Thanks to In the Can for the recording session info:

Wednesday, November 2, 1960 :  At Bradley Studio in Nashville, Johnny Cash
records “Five Minutes To Live” and “The Losing Kind”, both of which are
first issued on the LP “The Unissued Johnny Cash” (Bear Family BFX 15016)
in 1978.

Personnel : Johnny Cash (vocals / guitar) ; Luther Perkins, Johnny Western
(guitars) ; Marshall Grant (bass) ; W.S. Holland (drums).
Produced by Don Law.