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Ken Curtis

(1916 - 1991)


"Ken had a wonderful voice, a true voice. He was just like a pitch pipe." (Bob Nolan)


"Old Trail" from a cassette of chiefly Bob Nolan songs that Ken Curtis put together for P-Nuts, Bob's widow. "Old Trail" was written by Glenn Spencer.


•  Ken Curtis Song Stories (TV program never aired)

•  Ken Curtis Song Stories of the West (individual track sales)

•  Ken Griffis Memorial Edition CD

•  Fan Pictures

•  Ken Griffis Interview, November 1, 1968

•  Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers Work Chronology (compiled by Lawrence Hopper)


        Ken Curtis (Curtis Wain Gates) was born to Daniel and Nellie Gates on July 2, 1916, on a homestead in southeastern Colorado. His mother chorded on the pump organ, his father played the fiddle, and his brother Chester played the banjo. He had another brother, Carl. They all sang and, if they sang as well as Ken Curtis, it must have been wonderful to hear. Ken's father was the Sheriff of Bent County for three terms and the family lived in the lower part of the jailhouse.


Text: "Three Reasons why Dan Gates will make and keep Bent County a clean place in which to live.

Dan and his Three Boys: Carl, age 17; Chester, age 14; Curtis, age 10.

Dan Gates pledges you strict law enforcement without fear and without favor. Vote for Dan Gates for Sheriff.

(courtesy of Pandra Selivanov.)



Text: "Proudest boy in Bent County, Colo., 1927-8:

Young Curt (now Ken Curtis) standing between his dad, Sheriff Dan Gates, and his sure-shot mom, Nellie!

At left, Under-Sheriff Arthur Dean and 'the smartest dog ever known to mankind - my dog Ted.'" (courtesy of Pandra Selivanov.)



        Ken left home in 1935 to attend college in Colorado Springs with the intention of becoming a doctor. He became involved in college events, wrote a musical and decided that music, not medicine, would be his goal in life. In Los Angeles Ken and Dale (Shutts) Sloan formed a combo called "The Cats 'n' Jammers" and recorded a few songs. Late in 1939 he was invited to sing for Louis B. Mayer and several other movie and radio moguls and, as a result, he was signed by NBC. Ken and his brother Chester (Dud) traveled to New York with high hopes and worked in tunnel construction to make ends meet.

        Back in Los Angeles, in late 1941, Ken was forced to take another job in construction but he also made a demo record which Jo Stafford took to Tommy Dorsey to audit. Dorsey may have signed Ken as a temporary replacement for Frank Sinatra. Curtis did at least one recording with the Dorsey Band in late 1941 - Love Sends A Little Gift Of Roses - with the Pied Pipers, one of whom was Jo Stafford. He shortly joined the Shep Fields organization with whom he made a few recordings.


(Karl E. Farr Collection)




Magazine article courtesy of Pandra Selivanov.


        He enlisted in the Army in June of 1942 and, when he was demobilized, he again met Jo Stafford who was working with Johnny Mercer on the Chesterfield Music Shop radio program. Ken was invited to make a guest appearance on the show, sang Tumbling Tumbleweeds and was signed by Columbia Pictures for a series of musical westerns. When Gene Autry moved from Republic to Columbia, Ken was dropped.


1946 Throw a Saddle on a Star with Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Andy Clyde.




        In 1949 he was invited to join the Sons of the Pioneers when Tim Spencer retired and recorded with the group until 1957 although in 1953 he had dropped out of the Pioneers to became host of the Lucky U program. Lloyd told Ken Griffis that Ken was always first to rehearsal, willing to learn new material. He always supported Lloyd fully, always had a positive attitude and did a bit more than was expected of him. He was kind, with a fine sense of humor. He made you feel important, even if you weren't.




        In 1950, Rex Allen invited the Sons of the Pioneers to be guests on his show and when Rex left it, the show became Lucky U Ranch, hosted by Ken Curtis while he was there. He often took the part of a country hick character called "Dink Swink" which may have made him suitable for the role of "Festus" later in Gunsmoke.


Rex Allen and the Sons of the Pioneers on the Rex Allen Show



Left to right: Ken Curtis, Tommy Doss and Lloyd Perryman

(John Fullerton photo)





"I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" (video clip)

"I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" (mp3)

Left to right: Ken Curtis, Tommy Doss and Lloyd Perryman as the regimental singers in Rio Grande, 1950.


Back: Lloyd Perryman, Shug Fisher and Tommy Doss

Front: Hugh Farr, Karl Farr and Ken Curtis


        While he was with the trio, the Sons of the Pioneers were invited to appear at Carnegie Hall, the first western group to do so. Then came the movie business in earnest with parts in a number of John Ford pictures with John Wayne such as Rio Grande, The Quiet Man and The Searchers.


As Dermot Fahy in The Quiet Man, 1952


Ken Curtis as Charlie McCorry in The Searchers, 1956


        In 1957, he had a good part in the John Ford film "The Wings of Eagles" as John Dale Price, friend of Squadron Commander Spig Wead on whom the film is based.


Ken Curtis (John Dale Price) with John Wayne (Spig Wead) as young US Navy pilots at Annapolis.

With Maureen O'Hara who played Spig's wife, Min.







        He won the role of "Monk" in Have Gun Will Travel with Richard Boone and that, in turn, led to his role of "Festus" in Gunsmoke with James Arness.



Ken and Torrie Curtis

(courtesy of Pandra Selivanov)






Courtesy of Buddy Bryant


        Hi Busse and the Frontiersmen, the only group that backed up the people on Gunsmoke, backed Ken up on the road until 1980. Hi recalls that the Frontiersmen went to Norway with him, "His act was that he'd come out as Festus, but then he'd break into song. Boy, I tell you, he'd just knock 'em dead!"

        Hi remembers Ken at a rodeo in Jasper, Texas, signing autographs, hat off, bearded. There was a long line of people waiting their turn, including a woman holding up a three-year-old boy. To keep her son occupied, she'd say frequently, "Do you know who that is? You're going to meet him pretty soon." When their turn came, she asked him once more, "Do you know who this is?" The little boy answered, "Jesus".

        Among others, Ken Curtis wrote the songs, Be What You Want to Be and Buffalo. Ken and his wife were good friends of Dick and Dixie Goodman. Read Dick Goodman's memories for more.


    John Wayne's production, The Alamo, gave Ken Curtis an important role that did not include singing.


The Alamo, 1960

Laurence Harvey as Col. William Barrett Travis and Ken Curtis as Capt. Almeron Dickinson


Ken Curtis as Capt. Dickinson


John Wayne as Col. David Crockett and Ken Curtis as Capt. Dickinson


Laurence Harvey as Col. Travis and Ken Curtis as Capt. Dickinson


Laurence Harvey as Col. Travis and Ken Curtis as Capt. Dickinson


         In 1979 Ken Curtis made an appearance in the German TV Show “It’s Country Time” in 1979. Ken Curtis met his “German voice” Gerd Duwner and they were making fun together with the show’s host Freddy Quinn commentating. (The clip comes from the original video.)


Ken Curtis and Freddy Quin

Courtesy of Ann Greb


        Recently I found another video clip with Ken Curtis and Freddy Quinn singing together “Don’t fence me in”. I don’t know where it originally comes from but it must be also from Ken’s visit to Germany in 1979 maybe another TV appearance to promote his LP. During his stay in Germany Ken recorded an LP for Polydor Records with 12 songs half of them in German, “Don’t fence me in” together with Freddy Quinn and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”. The LP is called “Meine Songs – mein Leben”. It’s surely not a great LP – the German lyrics are sometimes a little bit silly – but it’s a rare one and belongs to Ken’s discography. (Anne Greb, Germany)


Cover of the German Country Music Magazine, "Country Corner".

Courtesy of Ann Greb



Page 34 of the German Country Music Magazine, "Country Corner".

Courtesy of Ann Greb


Courtesy of Ann Greb


Courtesy of Ann Greb


       In 1992 a documentary was released by MGM called "John Wayne's Alamo". It was dedicated to the memory of Ken Curtis and contained clips of a previously filmed interview.


Ken Curtis as Seaborn Tay in Conagher, 1991, released after his death.


        On April 28, 1991, at age 74, Ken Curtis died in his sleep of a heart attack at his home in Clovis, California. His ashes were scattered over the Colorado flatlands where he grew up. In February of the next year, the city of Clovis unveiled a life size statue of "Festus" by local artist Sam Hutchings, who sculpted the statue based on pictures provided by Ken's widow, Torrie. Torrie also gave the artist Ken's boots, holster and hat.


Statue of Ken Curtis as "Festus" in Clovis, CO.


    After Ken's death, Torrie asked Robert Wagoner to put together enough of Ken's songs to make up a cassette for his friends. They called it "Ken Curtis - Selections for Friends". From this cassette and from other tracks from Robert Wagoner, we have a list of the Bob Nolan songs Ken sang. Some of them were multiple track recordings he did himself.



Chant of the Wanderer

* Lord, You Made the Cowboy Happy

* Love Song of the Waterfall

Open Range Ahead

Rocky Roads

A Summer Night's Rain

* This Ain't the Same Old Range

Tumbling Tumbleweeds (from the Johnny Mercer Show)


*multiple recordings - all Ken's vocals and instruments

Thank you, Robert Wagoner.


        These selections of Bob Nolan songs, plus the others Mr. Wagoner put together, are now available to the public in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Track lists of the two CDs and the cassette available from UNC.


        To obtain a copy for yourself, contact the university's Southern Folklife librarian and refer to the ELIZABETH DRAKE McDONALD COLLECTION (Inventory #20355) 01


Steve Weiss (Director, Southern Folklife Collection)

CB#3926, Wilson Library
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27514-8890
Phone (919)962-1345
Fax (919)962-3594

Email: smweiss@email.unc.edu




Other unreleased Christmas recordings courtesy of Steve Howard:

Christmas Cowboy

Christmas Every Day


Track lists of the two Ken Curtis CDs and the cassette available to the public from UNC:

* Signifies that the selections are multiple recordings with Ken singing all the parts and playing all the instruments himself.


• CD1

01. Alyssa

02. Be Brave, My Heart

03. Cottonwood Tree

04. The Everlasting Hills of Oklahoma*

05. Grand Canyon

06. Guest at Our House

07. He'll be There

08. Rocky Roads (Bob Nolan)*

09. Kiss-and-Run Lover

10. Cryin' Steel Guitar

11. Headless Horseman

12. Five Years

13. Open Range Ahead (Bob Nolan)*

14. Honest True

15. I Thank My Maker

16. Let Me Outta Here

17. You'll Live to See the Day

18. You'll Live to See the Day

19. Festus Hagen

20. Pretty Butterfly

21. I Wish I was the Moon


• CD2

01. Festus

02. Festus

03. Donna

04. Love song of the Waterfall (Bob Nolan)*

05. Christmas Cowboy

06. This ain't the Same Old Range (Bob Nolan)*

07. Chant of the Wanderer (Bob Nolan)*

08. Tumbling Tumbleweeds (Bob Nolan) from Johnny Mercer's Chesterfield Hour - Ken's intro to big time radio

09. Cowpoke

10. Call of the Faraway Hills

11. You Don't Know What Lonesome Is

12. Violets for her Furs

13. Lord, You Made the Cowboy Happy (Bob Nolan)*

14. Sunrise on the Prairie*

15. So Long to the Red River Valley*

16. Summer Nights on the Range


• Ken Curtis - Selections for Friends (audio cassette)

Side A:

01. Kathleen

02. I Still Do (Bob Nolan)

03. Waltz of the Roses

04. Song of the Wagonmaster

05. Wind (Bob Nolan)

06. Home on the Range

07. Chuckawalla Swing

08. Gold Mine in the Sky

09. Wedding Dolls

10. Daddy's Little Cowboy

11. Little White Cross

12. Let's Go West

13. Room Full of Roses

14. Empty Saddles

15. The Searchers

16. Buffalo


Side B:

01. This ain't the Same Old Range (Bob Nolan)

02. Chant of the Wanderer (Bob Nolan)

03. Tumbling Tumbleweeds (Bob Nolan)

04. Cowpoke

05. Call of the Faraway Hills

06. Hannah Lee

07. You Don't Know What Lonesome Is

08. Bold Finnian Men

09. Violets for your Furs

10. Christmas Every Day

11. Lord You Made the Cowboy Happy (Bob Nolan)

12. My Gal is Purple

13. Summer Nights on the Range

14. Sunrise on the Prairie

15. Grand Canyon

16. So Long to the Red River Valley

17. The Lord's Prayer


"Lost" Ken Curtis TV Song Programs ("Ken Curtis Song Stories") (audio introduction to the series)


Boyd Magers (Western Clippings) is advertising for sale a DVD copy of excerpts from the "lost" Ken Curtis TV shows. Any Ken Curtis fan will be delighted with this DVD although the visual and sound quality is not perfect. In each 15-minute show, Ken introduces 3 or 4 songs, leaning heavily on Bob Nolan's compositions.


•  The Ken Griffis Memorial CD (Liner notes by O. J. Sikes)

        Ken Griffis did more than anyone else to record the history of the Sons of the Pioneers with his landmark book, HEAR MY SONG: The Story of the Celebrated Sons of the Pioneers, first published in 1974. For the project, he interviewed dozens of celebrities and people who worked behind-the-scenes during western music’s Golden Era. The interviewees included all members of the Sons of the Pioneers through the 1970s, and Ken re-interviewed some of them again, and others, for later editions of his book. In the process, he became close to luminaries like Roy Rogers, who often asked Ken to receive awards in his name when Roy couldn’t get to an awards ceremony, and Bob Nolan, western music’s most widely recognized composer. His research, and that of his wife Nora, contributed immensely to documenting the broader history of western music as well.

        Not only did Ken and Nora keep notes, they kept recordings, both interviews and music, the latter including radio transcriptions and, in some cases, TV broadcasts that otherwise might have been lost. This CD, featuring Ken Curtis, draws from that collection. In 1951, the Sons of the Pioneers hosted a radio show called The Lucky-U Ranch. The group featured a vocal trio of Lloyd Perryman (the group’s leader), Tommy Doss (who had replaced Bob Nolan when Nolan left the touring group in 1949) and Ken Curtis. Curtis was the lead singer and had replaced Tim Spencer in 1949. Previously, he had been a singing cowboy star in the movies. Years later, he was to become “Festus” on the TV series, Gunsmoke.

        In February 1953, the Pioneers decided to leave the show but Curtis preferred to stay behind and host a new show called simply The Lucky-U, dropping the word, Ranch. Some of the old Ranch crew stayed with Ken and the new show, e.g. Shug Fisher played bass and sang novelty songs, Frankie Messina played accordion and Betty Taylor sang. The new trio, “The Ranch Hands,” consisted of Curtis with Rex Dennis and Buddy Dooley. While Ken Curtis sings all of the solos on the songs presented here, Dooley and Dennis accompany him on most selections, e.g. “Chant of the Wanderer” & “A Cowboy Has to Sing.” You’ll also hear Frankie’s accordion and some fine fiddle work by Chuck Huerta on many songs, e.g. “Happy Cowboy.”

        Between 1953 and 1955, the Lucky-U trio filmed a series of programs for TV titled Song Stories of the West. Unfortunately, the series never aired and the video images have deteriorated to the point that copies have not been made [until now]. But Ken and Nora managed to lift the soundtracks from those old TV tapes and you’ll hear some of that music on this CD. Better still, Tommy Doss and Lloyd Perryman were invited back to appear on some of those TV shows, and many listeners will agree that the selections featuring these three gentlemen, while focusing on Curtis, are the real gems here. You’ll hear them clearly on “Grand Canyon” and “The Old High Lonesome,” but they appear on others as well.

        The educated ear might be able to detect a fuller sound in Ken’s voice on some selections than what you have become used to, listening to the RCA Victor recordings. This is due to a process they called “Sweetening” which involved having the singer overdub his own voice, singing his lines exactly the way he sang them the first time (as opposed to singing harmony with himself as some artists do today). Whether you can detect it or not you’ll surely appreciate the talent and the music – all of it! You are holding a rare treasure in your hands, one that was almost lost. So enjoy it! (O.J. Sikes)


The CD is for sale at www.pioneermusicproductions.com . The cost is $14.95 plus the shipping method of the buyers choice. Major credit cards amid PayPal are all accepted.


Fan Pictures:

"I am standing in front of Ken Curtis; Linda Bentley Tripp in front of Betty [Taylor] and a friend Nancy in front of Shug Fisher. My family had taken vacation to visit family and friends in California in the month of May, 1953. It was quite an experience driving from Mississippi to California with no a/c. My sister and I were 8 and 10 so I am sure my parents were ready to pull out their hair. LOL" (Bobbie Bentley Stiles)