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