Before “Act Naturally,” Buck Owens already had eight hits. Not only that, he brought Bakersfield, California into “Nashville West.” With all that, people still thought that Buck Owens would not become a big star. However, all of that changed when he recorded Johnny Russell’s “Act Naturally.”
The Inspiration for the Song
During the 1960s, Johnny Russell was a singer who had a long line of talent shows and was then working in small clubs in Fresno, California. Even though he was based on the West Coast, folks in his native Oklahoma were well aware that he had talent far beyond his years. Yet, there were times when Russell just wanted to forget about the smoky nightspots and go out on a regular date with his girlfriend to a movie. He finally got an opportunity to do just that. It was all planned, but then fate stepped in.
Johnny Russell received a call from some friends of his that he had known back in Oklahoma. They were in Los Angeles to do a recording session. They wanted him to come down from Fresno and help them with the recording. So that meant breaking the movie date Russell had planned with his girlfriend. Needless to say, she wasn’t too happy about it. To lighten the mood, when she asked Johnny why he had to go to Los Angeles, he told her:
“They’re gonna put me in the movies and make a big star out of me.” And, they both laughed.
The Writing of the Hit
During his trip, Johnny Russell started thinking about that line, the concept of being brought to Hollywood and made into a movie star. He began to develop a hook that could turn the joke into a country love song with a uniquely fresh approach. By the time he arrived at the session in Los Angeles, he had the song pretty much ready to go. Russell himself was doing a bit of recording at the time so he sent a copy of the tune to his producer who quickly turned it down, saying songs about the movies didn’t have any commercial potential.
The Recording of the Song
Unknown to Russell or Morrison, Don Rich, one of Buck Owens’ most important band members liked “Act Naturally” a lot. Whenever the band went on the road, Rich kept singing or humming the song. Eventually, Buck began to hum it too. Shortly after, Russell was singing at a hotel club in California when he received a telephone call from Bakersfield. On the other end of the line was Buck Owens asking if he could record “Act Naturally.” Johnny said that was fine with him. Russell later found out that Owens had already recorded it at the time of the phone call, and contacted Russell merely to obtain the publishing rights. Johnny was pleased to give Buck the rights in order to get the song on the market.
Buck Owens was by far the most popular country act on the West Coast. He had transformed Bakersfield, California into “Nashville West,” and his unique blend of honky-tonk music sung with an Oklahoman twang had been making noise on the national playlists for just over three years. Owens had already scored eight top ten hits, two of which barely missed the top spot, peaking at No. 2. Because he hadn’t been able to garner a No. 1 record, many were predicting that Owens would not become a top caliber star unless he moved his operation to Music City. Johnny Russell’s song was about to change all that.
The Success of the Song
Capitol Records released Buck Owens’ recording of “Act Naturally” in May of ’63 and it had sailed into the No. 1 slot by June. It stayed on the summit for one month. All told, the single spent over a half a year on the national playlists. All of a sudden, Buck Owens was a household name and Johnny Russell was in high demand. Publishers were calling him constantly, wanting to know what new songs he had written lately. Johnny also found himself working in nicer clubs and getting feelers for record deals. Russell’s crowning achievement at RCA was the Top Five hit “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” which soared up to No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart in the summer of 1973.