Inductee Biography for JOHNNY WESTERN
“When I grow up I’m gonna be a cowboy and sing and play guitar and ride horses just like in the movies”, 5 year old Johnny Westerlund told his parents on a cold day in Northfield, Minnesota. It was October 28, 1939, Johnny’s 5th birthday and the family had just seen the movie Guns & Guitars starring Johnny’s hero, Gene Autry.
Johnny Western began playing guitar when he was 12 years old and by 13 he was playing and singing with a trio from nearby Carlton College. Hoping to get on the air, the group made a demo tape for local radio station KDHL. By the time the station manager called, the band had broken up. But it was Johnny’s voice that had caught the station manager’s attention and he was offered a 15 minute Saturday morning radio show. (The first song he sang on the air was “Ghost Riders in the Sky”.) His popularity swiftly grew and Johnny Western, now his “radio name”, was soon hosting a full hour on the Farm & Home Show, a local favorite that aired 6 days a week from noon until 1pm. That worked well for Johnny who was still going to school.
By 1954, Johnny Western was living in Hollywood trying to break into the movies. He was married, working a full-time job and had been making the round of all the studios for close to 3 years without a break in sight. He was about to give up when his luck changed. In 1956 a friend asked him to sing for a Hollywood Christian study group. Johnny’s performance that day led to a job in Autry’s band and launched his successful acting career.
Western had briefly met Johnny Cash a month after starting with Autry’s band but it wasn’t until a couple of years later(1958) while both living in Los Angeles Cash called Johnny to do 3 shows with him in CA. Western would go on to play lead guitar on all of the albums Cash recorded between 1959 and 1963. In October of 1997, just one month shy of 40 years later, Johnny Western did his last show with Johnny Cash.
Between 1957 and 1963 Johnny focused more on acting. Appearing in 5 feature films, 32 television Western episodes which included Bat Masterson, Pony Express, Boots and Saddles, Wells Fargo and Gunsmoke. It was after an appearance on the series “Have Gun, Will Travel”, starring Richard Boone, that Johnny wrote, “The Ballad of Paladin”. Written as a musical thank you for Boone and the show’s creator, Sam Rolfe, it became the show’s theme and the song most often associated with Johnny Western. The song has been heard continuously in syndicated series around the world for 56 years.
Looking to make a change, Johnny moved from Los Angeles to Scottsdale AZ in 1963 where he met and became friends with 2 AZ performers on their way to successful careers: Marty Robbins and Waylon Jennings. Johnny credits Waylon with changing the course of his life when he introduced him to his 2nd wife Jo. Johnny & Jo Western have been married now for almost 50 years.
The timing couldn’t have been better in 1985, for the call he received from KFDI, a major-market country radio station in Wichita, KS, offering him a job as a DJ. The stories Johnny shared with his radio audience kept the station’s ratings high and listeners coming back for more.
Johnny Western recorded 7 albums during his career. He played guitar on 71 Johnny Cash singles and 5 of the “man in black’s” albums. His guitar work can be heard on the first 16 sides recorded by Willie Nelson and in 1961, he recorded a new version of “The Ballad of Paladin” accompanied by Columbia’s #1 country music star, Mary Robbins.
Johnny Western is the only country music performer who has played the prestigious Carnegie Hall 3 times, the Hollywood Bowl 2 times and been inducted into 10 Hall of Fames. In 2006, Johnny, Rex Allen Jr. and the Prairie Rose Wranglers became the first performers allowed to play on the Great Wall of China in over 2000 years.
Johnny Western considers himself the “luckiest man alive” to live his dream. By sharing his dreams, he has become a hero to others!
Producers: Beve Cole, Jim West, Linda Jane Brown