If you were to suggest a half-dozen television shows that are representative of TV in the Sixties, one you may mention is Bonanza. If you asked someone to name one western from the golden age, they would likely recall this series that charted the adventures of Ben Cartwright and his three boys on the sprawling Ponderosa ranch. Some television shows have entered a truly rarefied air and Bonanza certainly qualifies. The show ran for 14 seasons, from 1959 to 1973, making it NBC’s longest-running western and the second-longest running western in U.S. network history behind the ridiculously resilient Gunsmoke (20 seasons!).
Bonanza was part of a motherlode – a bonanza, you might say – of westerns that aired on American television in this era. In 1959, when Bonanza debuted, it was one of 30 shows that took place in the Old West and in March of that year, 8 of the Top Ten shows were westerns. Bonanza itself was quite popular, becoming the Number One show on television for the 1964-65 season, a spot it held for three consecutive seasons. The show sported a competent cast headlined by Lorne Greene who played Ben Cartwright, father to Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon). Part of what made the weekly adventures on the Ponderosa so appealing to viewers was the rotation employed from episode to episode. Some would feature Ben as the focus of the action, others might feature one or two or all three of the boys only as they maybe would take a trip and get held prisoner. This was even seen in the opening credits of the show. In a novel technique, each of the four actors took turns being presented first in the list of stars. This drove home to the viewer that Bonanza had not one star – love him or hate him – but four to appeal to a broader demographic. The steady hand at the rudder, though, was the fair and honourable Ben Cartwright, played by substantial Lorne Greene.
Born in Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, in 1915, Greene was the son of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire. As a youth, Greene was the drama instructor at a summer camp in Algonquin Park and began acting while attending Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. After working at the university’s radio station, he graduated and found work on the radio with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Greene had a “deep, sonorous voice” and this helped him gain the CBC National News desk upon returning from service during the Second World War as an officer in the RCAF. He eventually moved to the U.S. where he was hired by Katherine Cornell to act on the stage and he eventually made his way to Hollywood. You can see Lorne as the District Attorney trying to convict Selena Cross in Peyton Place (1959).
Lorne Greene became a star with his portrayal of Ben Cartwright on TV’s first hour-long western presented in colour. In 1962, when it was de rigueur for television stars to make records, someone got the novel idea to record an album with the cast of Bonanza to be released on RCA Records as Radio Corporation of America was NBC’s corporate parent. Ponderosa Party Time was a little different from such records of the time in that it depicted a party that the Cartwrights hosted for their friends. Throughout the record/evening, Ben and his sons chat, josh each other and take turns singing. The premise turns out to be the revelation of Ben’s real age. The boys have somehow uncovered their father’s baptismal records.
When you think about it, what could be more delightful? If you are a fan of westerns and Bonanza in particular, what could be nicer than a record like this? The Cartwright characters shine through, there are songs and jokes and the thread of a story running through the album. Manager of West Coast Operations for RCA, Steve Sholes – a man well-known in Elvis World – provides the liner notes and wonders what the show’s 42 million fans think of “our four new singing stars”. Amazing to see listed as Recording Engineer Al Schmitt. In 1960, Schmitt became the first engineer hired for RCA’s studio in Hollywood. Al Schmitt would go on to have a 64-year career during which he would win a record 20 Grammy awards for his work, including winning 5 Grammys for the Ray Charles album Genius Loves Company (2005), the most for any engineer in one night. Discogs lists over 1100 entries for records Schmitt has worked on. He won Grammys for Hatari! in 1962 and for Paul McCartney’s Live Kisses album in 2013. One of the last people to speak to Sam Cooke before he died, Al Schmitt himself passed in 2021 at age 91.
What, I asked earlier, could be more delightful than a record that presents a night spent with the Cartwrights and their friends on the Ponderosa? A record that presents a night spent with the Cartwrights and their friends on the Ponderosa at Christmas. That’s what fans got the following year with Christmas on the Ponderosa, another wonderful record with Yuletide stories and songs and some heartfelt sentiment that befits the holiday. Oddly, Pernell Roberts is absent for this recording as it seems Adam is in “St. Joe” until after the holidays. Odd that RCA would bother making a record without one of its cast members but I suspect that Roberts was coming to the end of his time on the show and was not interested in participating. Also, this same year, Roberts released his own record, Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies, and was perhaps more concerned with promoting it.
Akin to an artist leaving a band to go solo, Lorne Greene issued a single under his own name in the fall of 1964. “Ringo” was a western ballad spoken by Greene about a gunslinger who lay dying in the desert. A young man takes the gunslinger, Ringo, home and nurses him back to health. The two part company, Ringo gaining fame as a killer and the young man becoming a sheriff. Sure enough, the two cross paths again and face off against each other in a showdown, won by Ringo. However, Ringo spares the sheriff’s life – “we’re even, friend” – and rushes out into the street where he is gunned down. The sheriff mourns and hangs up his star.
This excellent tune rocketed up the charts and took only five weeks to get to Number One where it landed, displacing “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las, on December 5, 1964. It was also Number One in Canada but, oddly, only reached #21 on the US Country charts. It also topped the nascent Adult Contemporary listings for six weeks. Johnny Cash never had a #1 Pop hit but Lorne Greene had one. Incidentally, “Ringo” was written by Don Robertson and Hal Blair. Robertson – born in China – wrote fine songs for Elvis Presley, many of them quite gorgeous like “Anything That’s Part of You” and “No More”.
This was the beginning of a brief period of recording by Greene that gifted the listener with wonderful songs providing that cowboy vibe. Now, this is a “guy” I could easily be, full-time; “western guy”. Every now and then I will immerse myself in tales of the Old West and watch many westerns of all types; from Hopalong Cassidy to spaghetti westerns right up to the few good ones to be released in the last 30 years. Inevitably some other genre comes along and catches my eye and I go running like some hepcat squirrel chasing Vintage Leisure nuts but I can completely understand people who live here all the time. When I want that cowboy vibe, I’ll read Louis L’Amour and watch movies and TV shows, yes, but I’ll also turn to cowboy music. Lorne Greene is a great companion to albums by the likes of Marty Robbins and the Sons of the Pioneers. The reason may be obvious; Lorne is a great storyteller and the West provides great stories.
“Ringo” was featured on the album Welcome to the Ponderosa, released November 4, 1964. The cover promised “An Evening of Songs and Stories” and that’s what it delivered. The songs on the record featured Greene speaking an introduction before singing the songs. First up is a lyric version of the Bonanza theme. “Hoss and Joe, Adam know every rock and pine. No one works, fights or eats like those boys of mine”. Once, my kids and I were being particularly clever when we were watching an episode of Bonanza after Roberts left the series and Adam was no longer a character. We subtly changed the above lyrics and would sing “Hoss and Joe. Adam? No. Every rock and pine…”. Greene then relates the stirring story of “The Alamo” and the sad tale of “An Ol’ Tin Cup (and a Battered Ol’ Coffee Pot)”, during which Lorne tells of riding in the desert and stumbling on the remains of the camp of a miner who had come to a sad end.
This album is the only real gem in Greene’s LP discography. Get a compilation, yes, but this is a must-own record as it contains those great introductions and no less than four songs that qualify as classics, including the aforementioned “Bonanza” and “Endless Prairie”. Written by Ken Darby for the 1962 film How the West Was Won, “Endless Prairie” is given a driving orchestration providing a heightened feeling of chaos. At the outset, Lorne tells those riding with him that this vast prairie stretched out before them will make for some easy riding and it will be nice “to lope along and relax” but they soon find out that traveling West to tame a land is not easy and they themselves are tamed.
"All at once A wind came down and mashed us flat in our tracks The wagon got squashed like a stomped-on bug And then took off like a kite The sky popped its cork like a billion-gallon jug And poured out a big black strap night But what hit us next wasn't rightly rain Was more like big chunks of busted windowpane"
He then goes on to describe the “buffalo chiggers and elephant flies” that devour them and, 40 weeks later, they are still riding through the prairie, now wishing they “were home, sick in bed, or dead”. It’s a wonderfully descriptive song that echoes what I’ve often read in L’Amour’s books, that the land was truly wild and was a more-than-formidable opponent for those who tried to settle the West.
Later we come across the horrific tale “Sand” and Greene’s abilities as a story-teller really come into play.
"When I began my search for gold I stopped to have my fortune told. Silently her fingers traced my hand. I said 'What will my future be?' The only word she said to me, was 'Sand'"
How ominous is that? The confident miner travels onto this “God-forsaken land” in search of gold but things begin to go wrong almost immediately. As he sings out to his lady love waiting at home, he struggles now to simply escape this wasteland. His burro dies – imagine, struggling along, your animal by your side, your only companion and he drops dead! – and his water runs out as he begins to see things in the shimmering desert heat. He thinks his love is summoning him and he reaches out; “my fingers clutch but, Lord, above me, all I touch is sand”. As the spark of life fades, the fortune-teller’s warning returns. Greene finishes dramatically; “Endless…burning…sannnnd”. Frightful but excellent.
The crown jewel though of Lorne Greene’s recording career is the song that wraps this record. Ken Darby penned the stirring biography “Saga of the Ponderosa” and Greene shines telling the story of how Ben Cartwright came to have three sons from three different women and eventually acquire 500,000 acres of land. “Before you ride off into the night, my friends, here’s a story for the road. It’s my own story of the west…the saga of the Ponderosa”. Adam’s mother died during a sea voyage and the boy was a “yearling” when he and his father reached the “ole Missouri”. In the midst of much hard work, Ben was stopped in his tracks by a beautiful woman he made wife number two. A second son was born at “the edge of Colorado” and here Ben delivers one of my favourite lines from his songs; “Husky and jolly and hardly ever cross, my wife named him ‘Eric’ but I called him ‘Hoss'”.
A “savage hell” descended on a wagon train claiming the life of Mrs. Cartwright Number Two. There are a couple of sad lines about Ben’s two young boys being scared and crying as he travels on until he makes a friend. The story of Ben’s friend’s wife and Joe being born is quite nice. Eventually, Ben reached “a valley as rich as Eden” and stakes his claim. It’s an excellent song that provides a lot of details of how the Ponderosa came to be and the Cartwright fortune acquired. You have to hear it.
Lorne followed with The Man (1965), a record I have found in the wild with a title track that was released as a single and that touts the power of prayer. This album again features Lorne’s introductions to songs about working men, those who laid the railway and the dancing girls who entertained them. “Fourteen Men” is a song about trapped miners and “Darling, My Darling” is a pleasant song about love between an old married couple.
The standout is “Destiny”. “A man rode into town one day all dressed in sombre black. Three tombstones in his buckboard and his shovel and his pack. He drove straight to the graveyard and there he dug three holes…’What happened?’ said a passerby, the man said ‘Nothin’ yet'”. I love how this serious dude pulls into town with tombstones all ready and digs three holes. He plans to kill his lady and the man she is fooling with. The third tombstone and hole is for himself when he takes his own life. But he can’t pull the trigger on them and the town comes under attack. During the fighting, the three are indeed killed and placed in the holes prepared for them. “Destiny” is another great song from Robertson and Blair from this record with liner notes by Greene’s RCA label mate, Henry Mancini.
I’ve seen 1966’s Portrait of the West filed under the genre “Non-Music”. Seems harsh. The album features Greene’s takes on “Twilight on the Trail”, “Mule Train” and “Home on the Range”. The highlight is another great tale, the story of “Geronimo”. The land has been laid to waste and disaster has struck. The cause of this is whispered by the wind; “Geronimo!”. A train of settlers – “husbands, wives, kids by the score” – would soon know the “ominous name”. The warrior chief wreaks havoc, burning wagons and killing with “a savage hate”. He is eventually brought to justice “but should you listen to the falling snow you can hear it whisper ‘Geronimo!'” Another excellent song as Lorne Greene displays what he is best at; dramatic storytelling in song. In “Geronimo”, your mind conjures images of the chief and his deeds across the plain. This album was arranged and conducted by RCA’s Anita Kerr.
Greene’s final offering of cowboy music came later that year. Lorne Greene’s American West contained two further classics of the genre delivered in the inimitable Greene fashion. “Five Card Stud” contains an infinitely singable refrain – “A-put your money right down on the table, boys. The name of the game is…five card stud” – and is the story of a stranger riding into town and sitting down at a poker game. Here Lorne Greene plays observer, putting himself in the room when these events took place, a good device. In a detailed description of the card game, Lorne tells of how a young man at the table lays down a good hand and the stranger loses; or does he? The story contains a nice reveal at the end.
“The Devil’s Grin” is another harrowing tale, almost a commentary on the evil to be found lurking in the hearts of men.
"A gunman wears it when he kills To hide the mortal sin Of shooting down another man Who has no chance to win Many men have seen it They'll never see it again That smiling mask that watched them die It's called, the devil's grin"
The story is told – by Greene now in the first person – of a sheriff with a reputation as “the fastest gun around”. He runs into an evil gunslinger who is obviously not afraid to throw down. In a nice touch, the song tells of the man just hanging around town, playing innocent, asking if there was a nearby ranch to buy. Eventually, it’s an evil card game that brings things to a head. “I called him cheat and shot him down”. In an anti-hero element that recalls the new breed of westerns emerging at the time, there are some unsettling questions raised as the sheriff telling the tale catches his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. On his face he sees the devil’s grin.
After American West, Greene was done as a purveyor of cowboy music. He did later that year release the absolute finest version of “Must Be Santa” you’d ever hope to hear. But by this time, Greene had put an indelible stamp on this music and his songs do much to provide you with that cowboy experience I’ve talked about. Lorne Greene was much more an actor than singer – which reminds me that this is the only way that Greene could possibly be likened to Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was also an actor who sang but both – perhaps stemming from the fact that vocalizing was not their primary talent – relied heavily on vibrato. This practice often drives me nuts. As if being able to employ vibrato makes you a good singer but unless you’re Johnny Mathis, it doesn’t. There’s a lady who sits in front of me at church and I can’t help but hear hers. Makes me almost want to excommunicate myself.
The fact that Greene is more an actor, though, adds much to his songs. And, given the right material, the results are excellent. Whenever I’m driving through the southern States, I like to listen to the Johnny Cash album, Ride This Train (1960). On it, Johnny tells stories of the Old West as if he were there. You get much the same vibe from the work of Lorne Greene. He acts his way through these tales and they have a drama to them, enabling you to derive the same things from them as you would an 80-minute Budd Boetticher western or a 100-page Louis L’Amour oater. Greene’s records are essential for recreating that cowboy vibe and they are little vignettes that can travel with you as you mosey down the trail.
Ten from Greene
- An Ol’ Tin Cup (and a Battered Ol’ Coffee Pot)
- Endless Prairie
- Saga of the Ponderosa
- Five Card Stud
- The Devil’s Grin