John Wayne, You're No Enrico Caruso! When Duke Was a Singing Cowboy

What they wanted him to sound like: John Wayne, "singing" cowboy. Wayne hated doing it.

No one ever accused John Wayne of being a good, or even competent (or even tolerable) crooner. Anyone who has heard him attempt “The Streets of Laredo” in Cahill, United States Marshal knows that Wayne’s actual warbling sounds more like a bulldozer scraping concrete than anything tuneful, harmonious, or melodic. But in 1930, three years before Wayne was cast as Singin’ Sandy Saunders in Riders of Destiny (his first Lone Star Western, for Monogram Pictures), the ruggedly handsome cowboy star Ken Maynard sang two songs in Sons of the Saddle to become Hollywood's first singing cowboy. Later, other singing cowboys would amble into the picture, including two of the most famous: Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The trouble is that Autry, Rogers, and Maynard could actually sing their own songs (Maynard could also play the fiddle and banjo). But Wayne never “sang” in those early oaters. Instead, various golden-throated stand-ins sang the actual pre-recorded songs while Wayne lip-synched, often while faking playing the guitar. But his lip-synching was atrocious. His guitar “playing” (often filmed from behind to hide his lack of skill) rarely bore any resemblance to the music being played.

All that notwithstanding, Riders of Destiny was a hit, and Monogram pushed Duke to make three more musical Westerns (Man From Utah, 1934; Westward Ho!, 1935; and Lawless Range, 1935). But Wayne finally put his foot down. He had never been comfortable with the glitzy trappings of Hollywood cowboy stars. He forsook the pearl-button shirts, fringed gloves, and shiny boots preferred by the glamourpuss silver-screen cowpokes. He worked out many of his own fight scenes in collaboration with cowboy-stuntman Yakima Canutt to get more realistic onscreen action. Although Wayne hadn’t been raised around real cowboys, he knew what they were supposed to be like from the Western novels of Owen Wister and Zane Grey. Duke sought authenticity in his characters—and playing guitar while crooning on the back of a white stallion was anything but authentic.

“The fact that I couldn’t sing–or play the guitar–became terribly embarrassing to me, especially on personal appearances," Duke said in a 1971 interview with Playboy. "Every time I made a public appearance, the kids insisted that I sing ‘Desert Song’ or something.” He finally confronted the studio bosses, saying, "Screw this. I can't handle it." Wayne had become too valuable to lose, so the studio relented.

And that was the end of John Wayne’s short, and not so memorable, career as a cowboy crooner.

Credit: Video edited by Porfle Popnecker.

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