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Remembering when Johnny Cash and Elton John switched outfits on ‘SNL’

The 1980s were an odd time for everybody, let alone Johnny Cash. At this point in his life, Cash was yet to have his resurgence, and although he was an icon of rebel country, the early part of the decade seemed to represent something of a period of wilderness for ‘The Man in Black’. Notably, he’d been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980, and now, he was simply enjoying himself, as anyone would do if they hit such soaring heights. 

In 1982, the country music hero found himself presenting Saturday Night Live, after being invited by then-producer Dick Ebersol to host an episode. Amazingly, Elton John was the musical guest on the night, and it went down as one of the better moments in the short, Ebersol-led period.

However, for the most part of the show, John found himself eclipsed by Cash, who dazzled the crowd with his renditions of the classics, ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘Ring of Fire’, ‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’, and ‘Man in Black’.

Notably, Saturday Night Live in 1982 was a strange one. After the mess of the Jean Doumanian-helmed sixth season, which failed to deal with the entire original cast, writers and series creator Lorne Michaels leaving, NBC executive Ebersol took the reins to stop the show from totally failing. He succeeded, and his four-year premiership stabled the ship, leading up to Michael’s return in 1985. 

Interestingly, the Johnny Cash episode of Saturday Night Live also featured a 21-year-old Eddie Murphy, who helped ‘The Man in Black’ to deliver some hilarious moments. This entry has been hailed as significant by some commentators as the one when Murphy really came into his own, gaining more applause than his co-stars, and taking his comedic ability to the next level.

Listen to Johnny Cash’s final performance of ‘Ring of Fire’

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Famously, he opened the show with Cash by staring down the camera from his position at the country legends’ hip, a surreal but mirthful scene. Murphy’s work on the episode is also interesting, as in clips, the rest of the cast can be seen bootlicking Johnny Cash, whilst the young and energetic Murphy is unphased by his presence, helping to carry the show, as he did for four years. 

As for Elton John, we can only imagine what it must have felt like coming onto a performance that was already stacked with content featuring Johnny Cash, who was a veteran of the presenting game, and a youthful and hungry Eddie Murphy. It was almost pointless him being there, and the fact that the two songs he played, which were both from 1982’s pretty forgettable Jump Up! didn’t help him trying to claw back some of the spotlight. 

However, one of the best parts of the show did come courtesy of Cash and John, as for a brief minute, Eddie Murphy let someone else be centre stage. At one point, Cash shocked the crowd, who were in stitches as he donned a pink feather costume and joked about the ‘Rocket Man’ singer’s showmanship and proclivity for garish clothing. After this genius skit, John wears a black cowboy hat and duds, and performs ‘Ball & Chain’ and ‘Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)’.

It’s an incredible but forgotten piece of history that not only shows Johnny Cash’s ability as a host and comedian but also Elton John’s good nature, who has invariably been a proponent of good craic since he first burst onto the scene in the early ’70s. We just wish that the Cash-John partnership gave us more content, as it was a match made in heaven.

Watch the clip below.

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