8 great musical performances from classic TV Westerns
Clint Eastwood, Ken Curtis — not to mention guest stars like Lou Rawls and Ann Blyth — all sang in memorable Western episodes.
Classic TV Westerns have endured not just because of their exciting action and heroics but also because of their humor, heart and surprises— like the many musical performances.
Sometimes shows used their talented casts to perform folk ditties or even write original music while others enlisted famous guest stars to add musicality to the Old West. Here are some of our favorite musical moments from classic Westerns.
1. Lou Rawls – The Big Valley
Singer Lou Rawls is best known as the Grammy-winning crooner of Seventies singles like “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” but he did his fair share of acting as well. He appeared in everything from Mannix to Fantasy Island to Baywatch. His very first acting gig came on the 1960s Western The Big Valley. He played the title character in the episode “Joshua Watson,” a skilled cowboy who competes with the Barkley family in a rodeo against a rival ranch. In one of the episode's quieter moments, Rawls sings a beautiful rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” beside the campfire.
2. Hoyt Axton and Pernell Roberts – Bonanza
Folk singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton first appeared on the scene in the early 1960s. He came from song-writing royalty as the son of the “Queen Mother of Nashville” Mae Boren Axton— co-writer of the Elvis hit “Heartbreak Hotel.” The younger Axton also acted throughout his career. Before appearing in movies like Gremlins and shows like WKRP in Cincinnati, he made his screen debut in the season six Bonanza episode “Dead and Gone.” The show took full advantage of his talents, giving him no less than six songs to sing. He sang the folk tune “Poor Howard” as well as two original duets— “Smile as You Go By” and “Endless Road”— joined by Adam Cartwright himself, Pernell Roberts.
3. Ken Curtis – Gunsmoke
Gunsmoke also featured an original tune written by an actor. Ken Curtis, who played Deputy Marshal Festus Haggen, was both a jazz band and country singer before he won his most famous acting role. He occasionally got to use his talent in Dodge City, mostly putting on Festus’ ornery hillbilly accent to supply a ditty for a barn dance or hoedown. But Ken Curtis played it straight singing a song he wrote for the episode “Once a Haggen.” Bucko, a friend of Festus played by Slim Pickens, is sentenced to hang. As seen in the video above, Festus sings the solemn melody “Six Shiny Black Horses” as Bucko accompanies on the harmonica.
4. Ken Curtis – Have Gun – Will Travel
Before his time on Gunsmoke, Ken Curtis appeared in many other Westerns – and even showed off his singing chops! In the Have Gun – Will Travel episode “Love’s Young Dream,” Curtis plays a pelt scavenger named Monk. With Paladin’s help, the dirty trapper cleans himself up and performs the folk song “Fare Thee Well” also known as “Dink’s Song.”
5. Peggy King – Maverick
Vocalist Peggy King was a frequent guest performer on variety shows in the 1950s and ’60s. She appeared on American Bandstand, The Steve Allen Show, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, The Jack Benny Show and many more. She even sang in the 1955 film Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy. King also acted in numerous scripted shows including Maverick. In “The Strange Journey of Jenny Hill,” King plays the titular singer who Bret Maverick suspects might be connected to a killer. Along with a few folk songs, King performs a memorable rendition of “Some Sunday Morning,” originally sung by Alexis Smith in the 1945 film San Antonio. The same song was also covered by Clint Walker and Joan Weldon in an episode of Cheyenne.
6. Clint Eastwood – Rawhide
Though he’s best known for his tough, growling charisma, Clint Eastwood is also a talented singer. He even earned good money singing around the country during his days on Rawhide. The series showcased his vocal skills onscreen as well, for a brief moment in the episode “Incident of the Hostages” and Rowdy’s memorable perfomance onstage in “The Pitchwagon.” The latter rendition of “Beyond the Sun” was accompanied on the piano by none other than Buddy Ebsen, who played Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies.
7. Johnny Crawford – The Rifleman
Johnny Crawford was singing on TV since his early days in The Mickey Mouse Club, so it’s only natural that his character in the The Rifleman would have a song or two. In fact, Johnny Crawford’s performance of the original song “Something Special” in the episode “A Young Man’s Fancy” was tied to his album released the same year. The album was also called A Young Man’s Fancy and featured “Something Special” and the single “Cindy’s Birthday.” Later in The Rifleman, Crawford performed a sweet rendition of “Greensleeves” in the show’s final episode.
8. Ann Blyth – Wagon Train
Ann Blyth, a star of 1940s films like Mildred Pierce and Once More, My Darling was extremely picky about the small-screen roles she chose when television came along in the 1950s. One part— well, two parts— she couldn’t say no to were Jenny and Phoebe Tannen in Wagon Train. She played both mother and daughter in one of the show’s best episodes. The story follows Phoebe trying to find her famous mother, now hiding from the limelight. Blyth, as Phoebe, sings two songs written specifically for the show: “Golden West” and “Tomorrow.” The young composer who wrote the music for each song? John Williams, then credited as Johnny.