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Lorne Greene's 'Ringo,' A Bonanza Star's Hokey Cowboy #1 Hit

Entertainment | December 5, 2020

Lorne Greene (1915-1987), Canadian actor and cowboy pop star, circa 1970. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Lorne Green's "Ringo," a cowboy song and spoken-word tale, is one of the weirdest tunes ever to catch fire and reach the top of the Billboard pop chart -- but in 1964, with Beatlemania in full swing, the Bonanza star's wild-west ballad did just that. Written by country/pop songwriters Don Robertson and Hal Blair, "Ringo" tells a tale of gunfighting and death in the old west -- you can't dance to it like "I Saw Her Standing There," and you'd never catch Greene, a paternal 49-year-old Canadian TV actor, shaking his mop-top on Ed Sullivan. But a good novelty song has a power we may never fully understand.

Johnny Ringo Was A Real Cowboy

Source: True West Magazine

Johnny Ringo was a real outlaw whose life was that of what is portrayed in American old west films. During the 1800s, he was affiliated with the Cochise County Cowboys, whose adventures occurred throughout the Arizona frontier land. Although the song Ringo is seemingly about the infamous cowboy’s life, their accounts do not line up whatsoever and the tune tells a completely fictional story. Ringo is sung from a Western lawman’s point of view about the notorious gunfighter Ringo who is legendary for his unfailing shot and countless victories. However, one day the lawman discovers Ringo at the cusp of death with a shot in his back and a gun clutched in his hand, so he rescues the outlaw and nurses him back to health. Eventually, Ringo is healed and sets out to create chaos once again, parting ways with the lawman. Later, the two reunite in a draw between each other, but shockingly Ringo spares the lawman’s life. This decision was a sacrifice of his own life as he thus dies in a hail of bullets from other gunmen. 

Lorne Greene Was A Famous Actor And Radio Announcer

Source: Pinterest

"Ringo" wasn't historically accurate song -- but maybe that's OK because Lorne Greene was not even a singer. The celebrity was born in Ontario, Canada and graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston. Initially he planned to work as a chemical engineer, but after becoming involved in acting during his college enrollment he decided to take a career in radio instead. While serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, Greene was the designated radio announcer for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) who informed the country with updates about the war. Originally referred to as “The Voice Of Canada,” his deep, gruff voice that told of troublesome news led to his more accurate nickname “The Voice of Doom.” 

Source: All Posters

After serving in the Air Force, Greene dove into the entertainment world and landed some minor roles in Canadian TV drama series and Broadway productions. At the CBC, his captivating voice was also used to narrate documentaries such as Fighting Norway. Greene’s breakthrough moment was when he secured the role of Ben “Pa” Cartwright in NBC’s hit western series Bonanza from 1959 to 1973. Ben, father of the Cartwrights, led his family on numerous adventures throughout the backcountry of Nevada, which led to heaps of typical ol’ west mischief and explorations. From this moment on, Greene was considered a true western icon.  

Greene Capitalized On His Western Persona

Source: Art.com

Now that Greene’s rugged and strenuous appearance morphed a perfect cowboy out of him, he decided to take advantage of his outlaw character’s success by recording some country-western albums that correlated with Mr. Cartwright. In 1964, he released the album Welcome To Ponderosa, a collection of partly spoken word country songs about U.S. history. Greene’s powerfully sonorous and ponderous voice was ideal for recapturing the essence of America's old west days.  "Ringo" was included and became the most popular song of the entire album. Ironically, though Greene is credited as the "singer" of the song, the only part that was actually sung explicitly is the chorus, which repeats the song’s title while the rest is delivered out in spoken-word format. The repeated “Ringo” was not even sung by Greene, but an uncredited vocal quartet that researchers have assumed was either The Jordainaires or The Mellow Men.  

Beatles Fans Confused 'Ringo' With Ringo Starr

Source: USA Today

Ringo was released in the prime of Beatlemania where anything related to the Fab Four would be snapped up by young females instantly. The western "Ringo" used a clever scheme of featuring the name of the Beatles beloved drummer Ringo Starr as as its title, hoping to innocently confuse buyers everywhere. It is believed that one of the reasons the song was so successful was because of the Beatle-related title that led many to mistake the song to be either about or even sung by Ringo Starr -- i.e., “Lorne Greene” by Ringo Starr. The ploy worked as the masses expected the drummer, but were still pleasantly surprised by the intriguingly rhythmic story that helped them step into America’s past. Not only did the song reach no.1 on the Billboard charts, but it also reached no.1 on the Easy Listening Charts and Canada’s RPM charts, and no.21 on the Hot Country Singles. Since the song hooked listeners throughout the country, even the craziest Beatles fans, no one could be angry with the product they received.  

The Lyrics To 'Ringo'

Source: Spotify

He lay face down in the desert sand

Clutching his six-gun in his hand

Shot from behind, I thought he was dead

But under his heart was an ounce of lead

But a spark still burned so I used my knife

And late that night I saved the life of Ringo

I nursed him till the danger passed

The days went by, he mended fast

Then from dawn till setting sun

He practiced with that deadly gun

And hour on hour I watched in awe

No human being could match the draw of Ringo

One day we rode the mountain crest

And I went east and he went west

I took to law and wore a star

While he spread terror near and far

With lead and blood he gained such fame

All through the West they feared the name of Ringo

I knew someday I'd face the test

Which one of us would be the best

And sure enough the word came down

That he was holed up in the town

I left the posse out in the street

And I went in alone to meet Ringo

They said my speed was next to none

But my lightning draw had just begun

When I heard a blast that stung my wrist

The gun went flying from my fist

And I was looking down the bore

Of the deadly .44 of Ringo

They say that was the only time

That anyone had seen him smile

He slowly lowered his gun and then

He said to me "We're even, friend"

And so at last I understood

That there was still a spark of good in Ringo

I blocked the path of his retreat

He turned and stepped into the street

A dozen guns spit fire and lead

A moment later, he lay dead

The town began to shout and cheer

Nowhere was there shed a tear for Ringo

The story spread throughout the land

That I had beaten Ringo's hand

And it was just the years, they say

That made me put my guns away

But on his grave they can't explain

The tarnished star above the name of Ringo

Tags: Bonanza | Chart Topping Hits | Lorne Greene | Novelty Music | One-Hit Wonders | Ringo

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.