Cowboy icon John Wayne has been in boot hill for a full 42 years now but someone at Classic Country Music decided the news cycle is slow enough to get away with digging up a Phil Donahue episode from 1976, so they did. If CCM hadn’t called attention to it, this bombshell lurking in YouTube archives like a landmine would never have been noticed.
If it wasn’t for John Wayne
The official singing cowboy, Gene Autry, would have been just another hillbilly if it wasn’t for John Wayne. The number of those who remember the Duke’s singing career is getting smaller every year but he actually had one.
One thing is certain, Marion Michael Morrison turned out to be one of the most famous on screen cowboys ever. He holds a whopping 179 acting credits and was a legend long before his death in 1979.
"A man oughta do what he thinks is best." pic.twitter.com/eWyWPv0H5f
— John Wayne Official (@JohnDukeWayne) June 6, 2021
John Wayne made his debut in the 1920’s with bit parts and minor roles. He got his first chance as a leading man in 1930. He was 23 the year they shot “The Big Trail.”
Three short years later he was one of the very first of the singing cowboys. It started with Riders of Destiny but he howled through Man From Utah, wailed along Westward Ho!, and hooted across Lawless Range. Then he stopped. All at once. His fans wondered why.
One day, by sheer chance, in 1976, which was 40 years since his last singing role, Wayne did an interview with Phil Donahue. Phil got seriously upstaged by the question from an audience member.
JOHN WAYNE "THE BIG TRAIL" (1930) (AGE 23) ! pic.twitter.com/x2BeVV11OJ
— BLG🇬🇷 (@BLG_EMM) January 29, 2021
Not why did you stop, but why did he start? “Why in the early movies did they have you sing?” The Duke got a belly laugh out of that question. That’s what he wanted to know.
A phony thing on my lap
It all started out with a movie they were doing. “They had a picture in which the hero hummed every time he got mad, was going to kill somebody. And then they put words to it. Then the Southern exhibitors kinda liked it so they added another song.” John Wayne didn’t have a clue.
He had to have co-stars for backup. “He described his two co-stars standing beside to him, one with a guitar, one singing, and himself with what he calls ‘a phony thing on my lap,’ as he imitated strumming a guitar.
Of course, the audiences loved it. That meant he had to keep singing. “It got to a point where he was singing up to four songs in the movie,” CCM writes, “which he didn’t name, and he was always running around looking for a guitar. That was when he knew he had had enough. He explained how he put his foot down to the studios.”
John Wayne “finally went to the boss and said, ‘I’ve had it. Kids are now asking me to sing ‘Ol’ Silver-Haired Granddaddy’ when I get on stage and it’s not my racket.'” The producer wasn’t convinced. He needed a singing cowboy. The Duke had the perfect solution. “Go get the biggest hillbilly singer in the country and make a star out of him.” They picked Gene Autry and the rest is history. From “1934 to 1953, Autry appeared in 93 films” and soon became known officially as “The Singing Cowboy.”