Another Theme Song: ‘The Rebel’

If you don’t already know whose voice that was, singing the theme song of The Rebel, chances are you’ll recognize it when you hear it.

Yes, it was Johnny Cash, back in 1959-1961: he wasn’t famous yet. But it was a hit TV show, and singing the theme song was a big boost for his career.

In fact, for a lot of us–me, for instance–the story lines are blurred or altogether wiped away… but we remember the music.

(Yeesh, there was even a Rebel board game! I nevcr played it, though.)

A Loud Breath of Fresh Air!

(Good grief! Look how young Chuck Connors was when he played the Rifleman! I swear he used to be older than me…)

Don’t you wish, sometimes, that someone would come along to clean out the cobwebs?

Just for fun, try counting the number of shots Chuck gets off in 20 seconds. I know, I know, we’re not allowed to talk about guns, we can protect our freedom just as well by engaging in a meaningful dialogue, blah-blah…

But that makes for a really lousy Western.

Memory Lane: ‘Death Valley Days’

I just loved the opening theme of Death Valley Days–that haunting bugle solo. And there was something evocative in that distant view of the 20-mule team.

And then, of course, Rosemary DeCamp would come on with another ad for 20-Mule Team Borax, whatever that was, and the spell would be broken.

Death Valley Days first aired in 1952 and ran to 1970. In 1964-65 future President Ronald Reagan was the host (he quit to run for governor of California, which he eventually achieved).

Memory Lane: Adult Westerns

Westerns were big, big, big! on TV while I was growing up. But toward the end of the 1950s, the studios decided we needed Westerns that offered something more than just cowboys riding around shooting people. We needed some adult Westerns with meat on their bones. And psychology. Lots of psychology.

Lawman, for one, aired on Sunday night after my bedtime. But I could always hear the theme song coming on, and then my brother and I would get out of bed–we had a room upstairs–and creep toward the hall door. If we opened it a crack, careful not to make any noise, we could peer through that crack all the way downstairs–right down to the TV screen. And we watched as much of Lawman as we could before conking out and crawling back to our beds.

I was not an adult, but I liked those adult Westerns. The ones by Warner Bros. always had great theme songs. “Cheyenne, Cheyenne, when will you be happening by…” “Sugarfoot, Sugarfoot, easy-lopin’, cattle-ropin’ Sugarfoot…” And they were still shooting bad guys, instead of just letting them take over our society and screwing it up.

Besides which, the set decorator for Lawman was–of all people–William Wallace! “Braveheart”! How cool was that?

The Ghost of a TV Western

I was nine years old in 1958, and I have a vivid memory of lying awake in bed, listening intently as my parents, downstairs, watched Jefferson Drum.

This TV Western–and there were dozens of them, in those days–had theme music like none other’s. It was a grim, stately drum solo. I fully expected to find it preserved somewhere on the Internet so I could play it for you. Lying up there in the dark, that theme used to thrill me. Frankly, I don’t see how the show could ever have lived up to that theme music.

But, alas, I can find no trace of the Jefferson Drum theme. It is as if it had never existed–a fate that has overtaken many things and places of my childhood. Village of Bonhamtown, gone without a trace. Oppenheim’s estate, utterly erased. Lived here all my life and I can barely find my way around.

For the record, Jefferson Drum (played by Jeff Richards) was a crusading newspaperman in the Old West, before “journalists” turned into organ grinders’ monkeys for the Democrat Party. The show only lasted one season; but I can still hear that drum solo in my mind. I wonder if anybody else remembers it. Was there really any such thing, or did I dream it?

What’s Wrong with This Memory?

Rawhide" Incident of the Pale Rider (TV Episode 1963) - Photo ...

Growing up as a member of America’s first TV generation, I have many memories of what I saw on that black-and-white screen. And one of my most vivid memories was this:

An episode of a classic Western series, Sugarfoot, circa 1959, in which Albert Salmi plays a hired killer, dressed in black, who softly sings “Streets of Laredo” as he stalks his victims. Now, how would a 10-year-old kid ever dream up something like that? And it creeped me out but good, too.

But now, now (!) I know that it wasn’t Sugarfoot, but Rawhide, it wasn’t 1959 but 1963, and Salmi’s character was not a hired killer but rather an enigma–as in, Is this guy even real? flesh and blood? what the devil is he? He does dress in black, though, and sing “Streets of Laredo.” If you’re interested, the Rawhide episode is called “Incident of the Pale Rider,” and we watched it last night on Youtube. Superb! And it was cool to see what Albert Salmi could do as an actor, when given the chance.

But really–why was my memory so far off the track? Now I have to worry about my other memories. Are they all off-base? I doubt it; but then why should this one have been so badly off-target?

Well, there were an awful lot of TV westerns back then, and I watched most of them, and this one with Albert Salmi, I only saw once. His character impressed itself deeply on my memory, but the details got mixed up.

Good thing I wasn’t a witness in a court case!

A Blast from the Past

Sorry! But I couldn’t resist this blast from the past (lots of blasts, actually)–former National League first baseman Chuck Connors as The Rifleman, a classic TV Western from way back when. I wonder what would happen if you showed this on a college campus today.

Two questions for trivia buffs:

How many shots does the rifleman get off in just this brief intro?

And what was Chuck Connors’ real name?

(P.S.–His lifetime batting average was only .238, so quitting his day job wasn’t a problem for him.)

Memory Lane: ‘Tales of Wells Fargo’

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I had to go to Wells Fargo today to do yet more paperwork for Aunt Joan’s very small estate. As I sat there at the banker’s desk, and he ran stuff through his computer, I got to thinking about one of the many TV westerns that I used to watch when I was a kid–including Tales of Wells Fargo, starring Dale Robertson as a Wells Fargo agent who went around having all sorts of adventures and foiling the bad guys. It ran from 1957 through 1962, complete with comic books and bubblegum cards.

I don’t know what I would’ve thought, back then, if I’d found out Wells Fargo is just a bank–a bank!–like any other bank: the last place in the world you’d go to, if you were looking for really colorful adventures. Oh, the crushing disappointment! It’d be like finding out that Tarzan was a greeter at Walmart. Or that Bat Masterson was a sportswriter for a newspaper. (Uh, dude–Bat really was a sportswriter… fap…)

It was all a lot more interesting, the way it was shown on TV.

The Incredible Dyslexic TV Western

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If you’re into 1950s TV, you’ll recognize Paladin’s business card from Have Gun, Will Travel. But how many of you know the show only turned out the way it did because a famous Hollywood producer suffered from a reading disability?

Believe it or not, Have Gun, Will Travel was originally set in East Africa, not the Old West, and Richard Boone’s “Paladin” was originally named “Dinalap” and was not a gunslinger-for-hire, but a safari guide. And the show’s title was Have Gnu, Will Travel.

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Then the script fell into the hands of producer Izzy Kidden, who had dyslexia and didn’t usually read scripts himself. But he read this one, and confused “Gnu” with “Gun” and his imagination did the rest. Westerns were the hottest thing on TV, anyhow–the studio could hardly go wrong, offering another one.

What is not known by hardly anyone is that the associate producers had already gone ahead and obtained a tame gnu, or wildebeest, to co-star with Richard Boone. Boone took an instant liking to the animal, named it “Jambo Jimbo,” and used to drive it around in his car. He threw one of Hollywood’s more famous tantrums when he was informed that the new show would be a Western without Jambo Jimbo in it.

The director, however, who had gotten on Jambo’s bad side and been chased up ladders by the wildebeest several times, felt greatly relieved by the studio’s decision.

“No gnus is good news!” he said.

Memory Lane: ‘Whiplash’

In 1960 something new appeared on America TV: Whiplash, a western, if that’s the right word, set in Australia.

It should’ve been a hit. The star, Peter Graves, had been a success with Fury, a great kids’ show about a boy and his black stallion. Graves would go on to have a huge hit with Mission: Impossible, but at the time, Whiplash didn’t seem to do much for his career. Maybe because the British and Australian co-producers spent a fortune to film the series in Australia, but Graves insisted on filming much of it in a studio once they got there.

Much of the show was written by Gene Roddenberry, who went on to become famous for Star Trek.

You’d think the exotic locale, stories of adventure in the Outback during the Great Australian Gold Rush of the 1850s, and episodes featuring many of Australia’s most successful actors of the era, would have propelled the show to the TV hall of fame. But it only ran for two seasons, 1960-61. Critics are kinder to it now than they were then.

It even had a cool theme song. What’s not to like?

Well, I liked it! I was eleven years old, I’d been a Fury fan for years, and this show made me want to go to Australia and see the kangaroos close up.

I have yet to meet anyone else who remembers it, though.