HENRY VACCARO TALKS 30-YEAR FRIENDSHIP WITH JOHNNY CASH + ASBURY’S 1980’S HISTORY FROM THE MAN WHO LIVED IT
When you meet Henry Vaccaro Sr., you can tell he is a man with stories. He walks as if he is constantly in thought. This man has seen and done so much, it’s difficult to tell if he is thinking about moments past or planning his next move.
Vaccaro is a man who has “lived a life” as they say. And it all happened in the universe of Asbury Park.
Last year, Vaccaro published a memoir, packed with personal photos, about his lifelong, trusted friendship with singers Johnny and June Cash. Vaccaro’s book celebrates his “bromance” with Mr. Cash and shares a rare and fascinating inside look at celebrity life before US Magazine and TMZ deleted every ounce of privacy a star could expect.
“Johnny Cash is a Friend of Mine” is also the personal account of Asbury Park’s history in the 1980’s and 90’s from one of the city’s most visible figures. At that time, NJ Monthly magazine called Asbury Park “Vaccaroland” and the Chamber of Commerce printed bumper stickers that read, “How does Asbury Park spell relief? V A C C A R O.”
I spoke with Vaccaro Sr. about his book – a excellent beach read for anyone who loves music and / or our city.
TBP: How did your friendship begin with Johnny Cash?
Vaccaro: Johnny was my idol ever since I found his album in a Trenton record store in 1956. Twenty-five years later, I was a partner in the Kramer Guitar company and was introduced to Cash at the Garden State Arts Center (now the PNC Bank Arts Center) through a mutual friend. Cash’s band loved the new sound of the guitars and soon after, he and I began vacationing together.
John was a regular guy from Day 1 of our friendship. He was always interested in my family, asking questions and remembering small details about our life. He admired the respect I had for my parents and family because he had the same for his. In the front yard of his estate in Tennessee he planted a cotton bush to always remember where he came from.
When my father died, John had a gold cross necklace made for me that is now my most cherished possession. It clearly shows the depth and character of this man I came to know and love.
TBP: What did you think of the 2005 film “Walk the Line”?
Vaccaro: I thought it was excellent. Joaquin Phoenix was incredible as John. June Cash was not as giggly as Reese Witherspoon portrayed her to be, though.
I rarely saw John drink; maybe a few beers. Prescription drugs were his demons. It was the doctors that were the problem. He went to one dentist a lot.
John told me how (the addiction) started. In 1955, he had a hit song, “Walk the Line.” The band was driving all night every night to a new city. A trucker gave him some pills to stay awake. Then he needed other pills to go to sleep. With the help of doctors, it just grew from there into a lifetime struggle.
I was the only non-family member to visit him during a trip to Betty Ford Clinic in 1983. He whispered to me, “Liz Taylor is here too.” We all knew Liz had a crush on John. June told me Liz sent him a card every year on his birthday.
TBP: How did your friendship with Cash grow to include Asbury Park?
Vaccaro: We were in Griffin, Georgia. I showed June photos of Asbury Park, the Berkeley Carteret Hotel and the Paramount Theater while we were waiting for John to finish filming a movie scene with Andy Griffith. June showed the photos to John and he told me, “If you buy that theater I want to open it up for you. I want to be the first performer to play there.”
John made his first trip to Asbury Park in 1983 and soon after, we signed a partnership agreement. I built John and June a suite on the top floor, southeast corner of the hotel. They filled it with antiques and used it as a retreat when they were on the east coast and not staying at the small Central Park South apartment they sublet from Liza Minnelli.
True to his word, John performed in Asbury Park three times over the years. The first two times in October of 1985. I have letter from John saying he was committed to helping me make Asbury Park the “music center of the East.”
TBP: Talk about your time with your friend here.
Vaccaro: John and June loved Italian food from Mom’s Kitchen, Piancione’s and Christie’s in Wanamassa (currently English Manor). I would even bring it to them when we traveled together.
(Newscaster) Ernie Anastos and Danny Devito believed in the city too and did lots to help. In 1987, Danny DeVito premiered “Throw Mama From the Train” at the Paramount with a party afterwards in the Berkeley ballroom.
It was a great time but when the economy turned in the late 1980’s, it destroyed everything. I was depressed and disappointed when it all fell apart. I put my heart and soul into the city. Sitting at John’s kitchen counter one day, he said to me “Henry, the only thing that went bankrupt was your wallet. You are a good man with a good heart that keeps on ticking.”
John was a friend in every sense of the word and that is what I wanted to share in the book.