The most improbable recording star of the 1960s had to have been Walter Brennan. By then he was in his sixties and had already enjoyed a long acting career that included winning three Oscars and later starring on TV, but he turned out to be surprisingly popular with record buyers too. Of course, he didn’t exactly sing on those records, but he was still entertaining in his own way.
As Western (or sometime Southern) as he seemed to be in most of his roles, Walter Andrew Brennan was as Boston-Irish as they come, born and raised on the North Shore to immigrants from the old country. Even while growing up he was interested in performing, sometimes showing up on the vaudeville stage while still a teenager, but as an adult he followed his World War I service by becoming a rolling stone for a while. Eventually settling in the Los Angeles area in the 1920s, he made and lost a fortune in real estate before turning to acting.
It turned out to be a smart move, although it did take him a few years to get his footing. Beginning in silent films and continuing on into the talkies, he was mostly uncredited as he filled dozens of roles, but he could play anything from a sophisticate to a country bumpkin. By the mid-1930s he began breaking out and getting bigger parts, and by the end of the decade he’d won three Oscars, establishing himself as one of the finest character actors around.
But his acting career, including his starring role on TV’s Real McCoys (which he also produced) and countless other parts on TV and in movies, is pretty well known, and we’re here to talk about music. Brennan always had his eye open for opportunities, and in an era that loved story-songs he was a natural. His 1960 recording of “Dutchman’s Gold” (with Billy Vaughn’s orchestra) made a strong showing on the charts, and a little later “Old Rivers” did even better, nearly reaching the top. He would continue to record other songs and sell a lot of records in his later years, and when he died at age 80 in 1974 his legacy as a multiple media star was complete.