56 Years Ago: Buck Owens Earns His First No. 1 Single
On June 15, 1963, Buck Owens landed his first No. 1 single: the song "Act Naturally."
A clever take on feeling down on your luck, the song stars a narrator who feels he's so good at being heartbroken, he'd make a natural star actor: "They're gonna put me in the movies," Owens sings in "Act Naturally." "They're gonna make a big star out of me / We'll make a film about a man that's sad and lonely / And all I gotta do is act naturally." The song is concise and brisk, and marked by a galloping tempo, pinpoint harmonies and twangy guitars.
According to a 2000 Country Standard Time interview with the tune's co-writer, Johnny Russell, he came up with the song while visiting his mom in California -- Fresno, to be exact.
"I had a date," Russell said. "I got called by a record company that was doing a session in Hollywood and wanted me to work on it. When I called to cancel the date, she asked 'What are you going to do in Hollywood?' I said as a joke, 'They're gonna put me in the movies. They're gonna make a big star out of me.' I never called the girl again, but I had a song."
Although credited to Voni Morrison as well as Russell, the latter states that he actually wrote "Act Naturally" by himself.
"I met [Voni] in California," Russell says in the same interview. "She and her husband used to come out to where I played. She wanted to write songs. We agreed to put each others names on the songs we wrote … None of the songs she wrote ever got recorded."
Still, Russell has Morrison to thank for ensuring Owens heard the tune in the first place: "She was working for Buck, and she's the one who actually took the song to him, that and four other songs we wrote," Russell recalls. "He was going to record a different one, a ballad, but he changed his mind. I can't even remember the name of the ballad. No one ever recorded it."
"Act Naturally" spent a total of four weeks at No. 1 on the country charts and helped establish Owens as a country star. The tune also helped out the songwriters: "Act Naturally" was later covered by the Beatles, with lead vocals by Ringo Starr, and appeared on the UK version of the band's Help! LP and, later, 1966's Yesterday and Today.
"I called a friend who was a salesman at Capitol and asked him, 'How many copies is this going to sell?'" Russell remembered, when asked when he found out the Fab Four covered the tune. "He said, 'It's coming out next Monday, and we've already sold over a million.'"
In 1989, Starr would revisit the song, this time with Owens: The pair cut a new duet version of the song, which ended up topping out at No. 27 on the Hot Country Songs chart. To this day, Starr plays "Act Naturally" in his live sets.