Ken Curtis was a singer before taking the role on Gunsmoke

Before Curtis was in Dodge City, he was performing at Carnegie Hall.

Image credit: The Everett Collection

Before Ken Curtis became Festus, Marshal Matt Dillon's right-hand man on Gunsmoke, he had his sights set on a different career path. The star was a full-time singer before becoming a Western gunslinger.

In 1941, Curtis became a top singer for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra when he temporarily replaced Frank Sinatra as the featured vocalist.

The orchestra had a run of around 286 Billboard chart hits through the 1940s and the 1950s and had about seventeen number-one hits, some of which included: "Boogie Woogie," "I'll Never Smile Again," "Our Love," and more.

"I started my career as a pop singer," Curtis said in a 1969 interview with The Charlotte News. "I've sung a lot of nights, and there were [times] I sung all night long, but I don't remember none of them."

Besides his time with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Curtis also had the opportunity to sing with other big bands, including Sons of the Pioneers, where Roy Rogers got his start, the Shep Fields band and Pied Piper.

Adding to his list of singing credits, Curtis and Sons of the Pioneers performed at Carnegie Hall and was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

According to the article, Curtis started performing and singing at a young age. He came from a musical family; His father played the fiddle, his brother played the banjo and his mom played the organ. 

He did most of his singing before World War II. During the war, Curtis served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945. After World War II, Curtis started pursuing another career: Acting.

Curtis, much like his character, had a great amount of tenacity and fight in him. He started with a series of films: John Wayne's The Quiet Man, The Alamo, The Searchers and How the West Was Won.

In 1955, Curtis took the role of Festus, which would be one of his most important roles. 

"I didn't know it was going to be a career," Curtis said. "But it surely looks that way, doesn't it? Why, we are the sixth most popular show in the nation and the year before that finished fourth."

Because of his time on Gunsmoke, Curtis found a happy medium between being an actor and performing live. He and Milburn Stone, who played the role of Doc., would travel from rodeo to rodeo all over the country.

Attending rodeos meant making personal appearances and marketing themselves and Gunsmoke to viewers.

The two had a bit of an act they'd put on. Just imagine their usual Gunsmoke banter but with some added singing and dancing.

According to a 1966 interview with Richmond Times-Dispatch, Curtis and Milburne had a very special friendship that only bloomed more on its own outside of the show. The arguing and banter between the two stars was the Old West's way of expressing love.

Going on tour again helped Curtis find confidence in his voice and stage presence. He may have put his dreams of being a singer on hold, but he was able to reach new fame, find new friends and create a family with Gunsmoke.

"You know, I owe Doc a lot," Curtis said. "I'll never earn enough in Dodge City to repay him."

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13 Comments

BIGELOW 3 months ago
Ken was in a movie called The Searchers with John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter (Captain Pike). I think Ken played a guy called Charlie who sang and played guitar.

ALSO -- The line John Wayne repeated over and over was "That'll be the day." Buddy Holly and the Crickets were inspired by it and wrote their hit, and it was on records in 1955.
Bullitt2019 9 months ago
Ken Curtis was also in one of my favorite movies, Mr. Roberts.
GaryGoltz 9 months ago
and he stared in Ripcord another great Ziv Series that should be on MeTV! Watch the Pilot
Runeshaper 9 months ago
Ken Curtis was such a talented man. Loved him in Gunsmoke!
daDoctah 9 months ago
Instead of the usual clip of him singing "Blue Bonnet Girl" to the adorable Miss Jeff Donnell that I have posted here before, here's Ken with Shug Fisher and Harry Carey Jr on an episode of the skydiving series "Ripcord":



The guy on the right side of the screen at the end (who, alas, doesn't sing here) is Larry Pennell, known to Beverly Hillbillies fans as Dash Riprock, and to Bubba Ho-Tep fans as Kemo Sabe.
MrsPhilHarris daDoctah 9 months ago
He sings a lovely version of Six Shiny Black Horses on Gunsmoke.
GaryGoltz daDoctah 9 months ago
MeTV needs to show this series. Please everyone chime in on this!
harlow1313 9 months ago
That's really nothing. Ken Osmond went on to become Alice Cooper, the well-nosed actor on "The Wonder Years" became Marilyn Manson, and who could forget Beaver and the Trappers.

Of course, The Trappers disbanded after Jerry Mathers was killed in Viet Nam.
cperrynaples harlow1313 9 months ago
To be clear, the first 2 stories are lies! Mathers was in a rock group but he's alive and well!
harlow1313 cperrynaples 9 months ago
Yes. I practice absurdism.
BenSobeleone harlow1313 9 months ago
Yes, I remember that well!
Mark cperrynaples 9 months ago
Furthermore, that Beaver and the Trappers record is a hellaciously expensive record, but it did get reissued a couple of years ago.
edsawyeranddougfan52 Mark 9 months ago
Chester Anderson played by Buddy Hart and Tooey Brown played by
Tiger Fafara must have both moved to Bellport after the Leave It To Beaver episode Wally The Business Man and Newt Kiley from Green Acres probably moved to Pixley after Newt Kiley bypassed The
Sitcom Zone.
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