Although I usually include just one video with each post, a while back I featured one with several videos because I wanted to show the arc of a performer’s career. Same thing today, but with a twist. We’re going to spotlight the singing career of a guy who was better known as a Western actor. Most fans will remember Ken Curtis as the iconic character Festus Haggen on the long-running TV show, Gunsmoke, but he was a crooner before he was a cowboy.
Growing up in Colorado as the son of a sheriff probably meant that young Curtis Wain Gates was exposed to a lot of cowboys, but every member of his family was musically inclined and he fit right in. Even when he went to college to study medicine he continued to be active in campus musical activities, and in the late 1930s he left school for Hollywood to try for a singing career.
After scuffling for a few years, he managed to land a temporary job filling in for Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey’s band. Now using the name Ken Curtis, he didn’t last long — Dick Haymes eventually replaced Sinatra for good — but the exposure was important, and Curtis soon latched on to a regular job with bandleader Shep Fields. (In fact, we mentioned him in an earlier post about Fields.)
Although his progress was interrupted by his wartime service, Curtis spent much of the 1940s building a career that included a number of activities, including radio work and lots of film appearances in singing cowboy roles. He also sang with the Sons Of The Pioneers, a partnership he’d revisit through the years. In the early 1950s his movie career got even better — possibly helped along by his new father-in-law, legendary director John Ford — but he seemed to still find lots of opportunities to sing in his various roles.
That continued even after he began to show up regularly on TV. For a while he was a recurring character (who sometimes sang) on Have Gun Will Travel, and he even had his own show, Ripcord, but his biggest fame came as the unforgettable Festus on Gunsmoke, and he sang in a surprising number of episodes. In later years he often used the Festus persona when he toured and sang for fans, and while generating a number of records. When he died at age 74 in 1991 he was mourned by his many friends and fans.
Ken Curtis – “The Cottonwood Tree”