Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: While watching Have Gun - Will Travel, the popular TV western in the 1950s and '60s, I noticed the theme, “The Ballad of Paladin,” is sung by someone named Johnny Western.

He has such a nice voice, and I am wondering if he made any records, or sang themes for other television shows.

I also think Richard Boone was the perfect choice for the part of Paladin.
—Janice Bolin, Boonville, Ind.

DEAR JANICE: It stands to reason Richard Boone would be well-received in Boonville.

In 1954, 20-year-old Johnny Western heeded Horace Greely's advice to “Go west young man!” He left his Minnesota home bound for Hollywood, chasing his Gene Autry-inspired dream of being a singing cowboy in the movies.

Just months later, Johnny owned his own company, Film-West Productions. On January 1, 1955, Film-West announced plans to shoot a half-hour western in color, starring, and titled, Johnny Western.

Unfortunately, those plans got derailed, otherwise they would have made television's first color western, four years before Bonanza (1959). Western finally got to act, on Have Gun - Will Travel. In the 35th episode, “The Return of Dr. Thackeray,” he played Steve Pauley, a short-tempered cowpoke foolish enough to challenge Paladin to a gunfight. Not a wise move, though he somehow survived and appeared uncredited in six future episodes (1962-'63).

It was a busy time for Johnny, who snagged TV roles on: Boots and Saddles (1957); Gunsmoke (1958); Flight (1958); Tales of Wells Fargo (1958-'59); Pony Express (1960); and The Night Rider (1962). He even got big screen parts in The Dalton Girls (1957), and Fort Bowie (1958). Western wrote “The Ballad of Paladin,” and is heard singing what amounts to about one verse over the closing credits of all 226 episodes.

Have Gun - Will Travel, the prototype intellectual western, ran on CBS for six years (September 14, 1957 - September 21, 1963). Most impressive is that a Saturday night show dominated the ratings for all but its last two years, averaging over 33% of the available audience and consistently among television's Top 3.

Based on “The Ballad of Paladin,” plus his singing cowboy persona, CBS's music arm, Columbia Records, signed Johnny to a five-year (1958-1963) deal for seven singles and one LP.

His first and most successful is the original single of “The Ballad of Paladin” (Columbia 41260). Its September 1958 release coincided perfectly with the second season kickoff of Have Gun - Will Travel.

The Paladin tie-in continues on the B-side, “The Guns of Rio Muerto.” Here the narrative is by Richard Boone with Western handling the singing parts.

Three years later, with Have Gun - Will Travel the third most-watched program — the top two also being westerns: Bonanza and Wagon Train — Johnny recorded a new version of “The Ballad of Paladin” (Columbia 42161). Accompanying John on this session was Columbia's No. 1 western music star, Marty Robbins.

Strangely, Columbia waited until 1962, when viewership of Have Gun - Will Travel was dwindling (Nielsen rated No. 29), to issue Western's first album, “Have Gun, Will Travel” (CL-1788/CS-8588).

Predictably, it did not sell nearly as well as it would if released circa 1958.

For decades, Johnny Western traveled and performed with the Johnny Cash Show, including some of those legendary penitentiary gigs. Western also served as the Cash show's emcee.

His complete body of work includes recordings before and after his years with Columbia. Among those other labels are: JOCO (1952); Philips (1964); and Hep (1967).

All of John's recorded output is available on the three-CD boxed set: “Heroes and Cowboys” (Bear Family BCD-15552). For around $70, this collection provides 74 Johnny Western tracks.

His only tune used as a TV series theme is “The Ballad of Paladin,” which earned him a permanent spot in the TV Theme Hall of Fame. Johnny Western still tours and performs, and is regularly heard on the radio.

IZ ZAT SO? Besides the TV Theme Hall of Fame (1993), John is also enshrined in the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame (2000); Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame (2000); Western Music Association Hall of Fame (2001); Wichita Professional Broadcasters Hall of Fame (2002); Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame (2004); and Kansas Western Swing Hall of Fame (2004).

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