Johnny Russell

Country singer-songwriter and comedian John Bright Russell or popularly known as Johnny Russell was born this same day of January in 1940. He passed away on July 3, 2001, but not without leaving us a string of memorable hits like “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor,” “Catfish John,” “Hello, I Love You,” and George Strait’s 1984 No. 1 hit,  “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together.”

Other country singers also recorded some of his songs including Burl Ives, Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt.

Johnny Russell began writing songs at age 11 until his graduation in the late ’50s. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, his works were published and recorded by several artists. By the late ’80s, Johnny Russell started hosting an annual concert in his hometown, Moorhead, Mississippi.

In 1985, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry doing comedy acts. Weighing more than 200 pounds, Johnny Russel would always poke fun of his size as he loved seeing and giving people a “good belly laugh.”

After 13 years in the entertainment industry, Johnny Russell’s health declined which led to his retirement on April 29,2000.

Act Naturally: A Song About the Movies

“Act Naturally” was co-written by Johnny Russell with Voni Morrison. It was first recorded and performed by Buck Owens and upon its release on March 11, 1963, it went straight to the top of Billboard Country Singles chart. The song’s fame has spanned for almost five decades that by 2002, “Act Naturally” was ranked #169 on the Top 500 Country Music Songs list.

Other known recordings of “Act Naturally” was done by the Beatles, Dwight Yoakam, and Loretta Lynn.

Johnny Russel’s song’s conception happened when he had to put off a date with his girlfriend in order to attend a recording session in L.A. When his girlfriend asked the reason, he jokingly told her that he’ll be put in the movies and become a big star.  The phrase stuck with Russell so he wrote and completed the song that same day.

 Buck Owens and the Buckaroos (1963)

Despite Johnny Russel’s enthusiasm over his song, his producer didn’t think of “Act Naturally” as a potential hit. For two years,  Russel had difficulty trying to get someone to record his song. His fateful meeting and collaboration with fellow songwriter Voni Morrison renewed his hope.

Voni has been working for Buck Owens and after hearing Rusell play “Act Naturally,” she thought the song would become a natural hit for Owens. She took the song to Owens, but he rejected it as he already planned to record a ballad. Don Rich, Owen’s peer, and band member, also heard Johnny Russell’s demo. Rich convinced Owens to cut the song which they eventually did, but without Russel’s knowledge. Owens later called Russell for his permission which he was more pleased to grant it.

Though Owens and the Buckaroos have already made a name in Country Music, they did not have any chart-toppers. Johnny Russel’s “Act Naturally” became their 1st which was then followed by 19 more #1s on Billboard’s Country Singles chart.

The Beatles (1965)

Following the success of Johnny Russel’s “Act Naturally” in the C&W world, the English rock band, The Beatles, decided to cover the song for their album, Help. It was, however, released as B-Side of “Yesterday” in the U.S.  Capitol Records would soon issue “Act Naturally” as a single, but still in the B-Side. The song reached #47 in October 1965. In 1971, Apple Records took and re-issued “Act Naturally,” but this time, on the A-side.

The Beatles performed “Act Naturally” on The Ed Sullivan Show in August and continued to play it throughout their 1965 U.S concert tours.

On June 17, 1965, Ringo Starr did the vocals for their cover of Russel’s song.”Act Naturally” was seen as a better fit for Ringo than the original “If You’ve Got Trouble.” The band was more than satisfied with the results.

Authorship Mixed Up

As a songwriter, Johnny Russell’s career progressed for three decades (’60s-’80s). His success did not just end with “Act Naturally” though.

He penned other hits like “Making Plans” for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton (#2, 1980), “You’ll Be Back (Every Night In My Dreams) for the Statler Brothers (33, 1982) and his self-recorded song, “Rednecks, White Socks And Blue Ribbon Beer” (#4, 1973).

The authorship of his best-known song, “Act Naturally,” however, gets confused with the artists who popularized it. At times,  Johnny Russel would run into people who thought that it’s Buck or the Beatles that wrote the song. He said that such happens a lot when you’re a songwriter. You wouldn’t get much credit for your works.