Have Guitar, Will Travel – Johnny Western

Lately I’ve been watching some of the original episodes of the classic TV Western, Have Gun – Will Travel. It was one of the most popular shows around in the late Fifties, although it had plenty of competition because Westerns were all over the dial at that time. But most shows didn’t even approach the coolness of Have Gun – Will Travel.

Even those who have never watched it might remember hearing about the show, which starred Richard Boone as the hired gun, Paladin. Boone was a veteran actor who certainly wasn’t Hollywood-handsome but he had plenty of charisma, and he brought a definite panache to the role of the urbane hero. One of his trademarks was showing his card, which not only featured the famous phrase but also a drawing of a chess knight and the words, ‘Wire Paladin – San Francisco’. (A lot of kids thought ‘Wire’ was his first name.)

I was a big fan of the show myself and pretty much remembered all that, but what I had forgotten until I started watching again was a change they made during the early years of the show. They added a guy singing “The Ballad Of Paladin” over the closing credits, and it turns out that there’s a good story behind that.

Although Johnny Western might sound like a stage name, it isn’t. He was born during the Depression near the Canadian border in Minnesota, and because of his dad’s government job he even spent parts of his childhood on Indian reservations. Raised with a love of the Old West, he was also influenced by watching singing cowboys like Gene Autry on the silver screen. By the time he got a guitar as a gift on his 12th birthday, he’d set his course for life.

Throughout his early teens Johnny gained experience by performing locally, and he was hosting his own country music radio program by age 16. It was the real thing, with well-known guests like the Sons Of The Pioneers, and he got to play and sing along with them too. Within a few years he had managed to work his way into a similar job as the singing host of a show on regional TV. It again gave him the opportunity to work with guest stars, appearing with guys like Rex Allen and Tex Ritter. He also made a couple of records, but his next stop was Hollywood.

To Johnny’s dismay, singing movie cowboys were passè by the early Fifties, but Hollywood was beginning to wake up to the possibilities for TV Westerns. He did manage to land a job in Gene Autry’s band but as much as he enjoyed working with his boyhood hero, he set his eye on acting. He eventually began getting some small parts, and became a busy but relatively unknown actor before finally reaching a key turning point in his career — he found himself in an episode of a new show called Have Gun – Will Travel.

Johnny promptly composed a song called “The Ballad Of Paladin” and soon convinced producers to add his baritone vocal to the show’s closing credits. The success of the song helped him get a recording contract, and even though he continued to find acting parts, he became one of the most popular singers around, sometimes working with stars like his good friend, Johnny Cash. He often specialized in cowboy-themed music from TV and the movies, along with classic Western ballads like “The Gunfighter,” and one of my favorites, “Nineteen Men”.

Although health concerns have slowed him down in recent years, Johnny Western has for decades worked with some of the biggest stars around, and his own live shows have always been a popular draw. He has been a vital link in keeping Western music alive, fulfilling the promise in his name.

30 thoughts on “Have Guitar, Will Travel – Johnny Western

  1. I certainly share your exuberance with regard to the man called Paladin. The show was one of my all-time favorites.

    And perhaps somewhat coincidental, but just last week I was working on putting some new CD compilations of music together to carry in the car. Of course I had to design a CD label and a cover for the front and back of the jewel case for the CD. And then I needed to come up with an appropriate title for my CDs. Well what else could it be but “Have Music – Will Travel”!


  2. Sounds perfect to me, Alan. 🙂
    BTW I’ve discovered something else from watching these old shows. Many of the scripts (in most cases, the better ones) were written by Gene Roddenberry, who would of course later become the Star Trek guru.


  3. Johnny is a remarkable man. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Johnny would guest on my radio show in Phoenix in between his personal appearances around the country. It was largely because of this that he returned to radio when offered a spot on Wichita’s KFDI (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Western). One thing that a lot of folks do not know is that Johnny was very close to being selected for the roll of “Little Joe” on Bonanza but lost out to Michael Landon because the producers thought there was more of a physical resemblance to Lorne Green.


  4. Hey Johnny, we have met several times at The National Festival of the West in Scottsdale Az. I work in front gate doing security for Mary Brown. I have kidded around with and hugged your friend Millie more times that does some of your rinning at feseival. I feel as you and I are old friends. You may or not remember. I,m 6’3 gray hair and have a big mustache. I gave Millie my e-mail at festival. Well in short I am and will always be a huge fan of yours. My favorite song besides Paladin is Johnny Yuma the Rebel, since I was born in Missouri and condider myself a reb. Johnny it was greeat to finally take time to find your website. I do hope to see you for my 16th ywar March 2011. Take care your buddy see yaq on the trail–Drifter


  5. Thanks for the note, Drifter. I don’t know if Johnny will see it, but let’s hope so — he could be a regular reader of the GMC for all we know.

    Big Geez


  6. My dad is lost without Johnny Western!! Do you know if he has a websight or can be heard on the radio anywhere? For many, many years the routine in my parents’ house has revolved around the Johnny Western show, particularly “The Lone Ranger” portion on the AM dial. Thanks in advance for any information.


  7. Thanks for writing. Although there’s lots of old info around, I have not been able to find any kind of active website or current info about Johnny. Everything seems to indicate he’s completely retired. Maybe one of our readers has some information.

    I did find one website with what appears to be Johnny Western radio shows from a few years back.


  8. I was a a 10 year old in canoga park california while paladin was on tv. Johnny western was my next door neighbor. He played the song for me in his den of his home, it was an experience I obviously will never forget and still at 59 yrs old tell my friends about…thanks johnny for the memory.


  9. I met Johnny Western at the 2011 Williamsburg Film Fest. He put on a great show for a banquet of about 250 people.
    Truely magnificent. Thanks for the autograph and photo opportunity. LOU


  10. My husband & I have been watching the reruns of Have Gun will Travel and enjoy them immensely. Of course we remember Richard Boone from our earlier years. Now we appreciate more of who was behind the scenes to make the show what it was. The ballad that Johnny Western wrote and sang was absolutely wonderful. So much so that I am trying to find a ringtone for my husband’s cellphone to help give a little smile of our time of watching & listening to this show together. Thanks for having this website and just to let Johnny know that you have a prayer partner.


  11. Johnny Western is a true performer for sure. I have photos of Johnny performing with us at a club in Iowa called “The Ponderosa” in the mid 60’s. He came to our home, met our kids and shared many meals with us during those years. As I recall, he spent a night or 2 with us when he was performing away from home. He was considered a part of our family. I live in Southern CA now and would love to find an address for Johnny, or a phone # in Mesa. I’d like to get the photos to him and also re-connect our memories.


  12. My uncle by the name of Phil Morrison met Mr. Western at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood around 1964-1965. Recently Phil wrote his Biography that included meeting with Mr. Western. Phil just recently learned that Mr. Western was a DJ on KFDI but has left in 2010. Phil would like to contact Mr. Western by phone or email to thank him for his friendliness and encouragement back at the Palomino club where Mr. Western sang the Paladin Ballad . Is there’s any way that any of you that read this that has Mr. Western’s contact info, would you provide a phone number or an email address so Phil could talk with him? You can send this information to Phil Morrison at philmor7@hotmail.com

    The book Phil Morrison wrote is called Pivotal Moments and is available to read about on this website http://www.pivotalmoments64.com
    Not trying to sell the book, but just proving the book is real and the request is sincere. Thank you,


  13. I heard on the radio On May 1st 2012 that Mr. Western will not perform at the Prarie Rose this May 5th because of health issues. Johnny’s pal Rex Allen, Jr. has agreed to perform in his place! The Prarie Rose still have some seats available, to save yours, give them a call at (316) 778-2121. Let us all pray for Johnny’s health recovery. We’re all pulling for you Johnny!


  14. At age 15 I fell in love the voice that sang “The Ballad of Paladin.” To me it was the most beautiful voice that I had ever heard. Met Johnny a few years later & found him to be a thoughtful, soft spoken guy. Fifty years later, I still think that he has the most beautiful voice. Prayers for John’s health to improve.


  15. I has always been a true honor to call John “Friend.” I remember the first time I played with John and the thrill of performing The Ballad of Paladin with the man who wrote it. Fritz


  16. There is a comment on his wikipedia page that says a high school classmate had said that he’d changed his name, but have not seen it elsewhere. I guess it’s possible but on the other hand wiki is not always accurate. Do you have other info?


  17. I met Johnny at Tachikawa AB Japan in the 60’s when he was on tour. Great show and we had a meal after tje show, he may remember. Military police talked to us,no big problem but it is away to maybe remember this. I woukd like to say HI if there is any way at this time. Thanks Jerry King


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