Lately I’ve been watching some of the original episodes of the classic TV Western, Have Gun – Will Travel. It was one of the most popular shows around in the late Fifties, although it had plenty of competition because Westerns were all over the dial at that time. But most shows didn’t even approach the coolness of Have Gun – Will Travel.
Even those who have never watched it might remember hearing about the show, which starred Richard Boone as the hired gun, Paladin. Boone was a veteran actor who certainly wasn’t Hollywood-handsome but he had plenty of charisma, and he brought a definite panache to the role of the urbane hero. One of his trademarks was showing his card, which not only featured the famous phrase but also a drawing of a chess knight and the words, ‘Wire Paladin – San Francisco’. (A lot of kids thought ‘Wire’ was his first name.)
I was a big fan of the show myself and pretty much remembered all that, but what I had forgotten until I started watching again was a change they made during the early years of the show. They added a guy singing “The Ballad Of Paladin” over the closing credits, and it turns out that there’s a good story behind that.
Although Johnny Western might sound like a stage name, it isn’t. He was born during the Depression near the Canadian border in Minnesota, and because of his dad’s government job he even spent parts of his childhood on Indian reservations. Raised with a love of the Old West, he was also influenced by watching singing cowboys like Gene Autry on the silver screen. By the time he got a guitar as a gift on his 12th birthday, he’d set his course for life.
Throughout his early teens Johnny gained experience by performing locally, and he was hosting his own country music radio program by age 16. It was the real thing, with well-known guests like the Sons Of The Pioneers, and he got to play and sing along with them too. Within a few years he had managed to work his way into a similar job as the singing host of a show on regional TV. It again gave him the opportunity to work with guest stars, appearing with guys like Rex Allen and Tex Ritter. He also made a couple of records, but his next stop was Hollywood.
To Johnny’s dismay, singing movie cowboys were passè by the early Fifties, but Hollywood was beginning to wake up to the possibilities for TV Westerns. He did manage to land a job in Gene Autry’s band but as much as he enjoyed working with his boyhood hero, he set his eye on acting. He eventually began getting some small parts, and became a busy but relatively unknown actor before finally reaching a key turning point in his career — he found himself in an episode of a new show called Have Gun – Will Travel.
Johnny promptly composed a song called “The Ballad Of Paladin” and soon convinced producers to add his baritone vocal to the show’s closing credits. The success of the song helped him get a recording contract, and even though he continued to find acting parts, he became one of the most popular singers around, sometimes working with stars like his good friend, Johnny Cash. He often specialized in cowboy-themed music from TV and the movies, along with classic Western ballads like “The Gunfighter,” and one of my favorites, “Nineteen Men.”
Although health concerns have slowed him down in recent years, Johnny Western has for decades worked with some of the biggest stars around, and his own live shows have always been a popular draw. He has been a vital link in keeping Western music alive, fulfilling the promise in his name.