In the 1958-1963 TV series The Rifleman, young Johnny Crawford played Mark McCain, the only child of widower rancher Lucas McCain, portrayed by Chuck Connors. The two lived alone in the 1880s on the frontier of New Mexico Territory, struggling against outlaws, Indians and the harsh elements.
As leader today of The Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra, a popular dance band based in Southern California, Crawford, 61, continues to live in the past. His ensemble concentrates on vibrant arrangements of popular songs from the 1920s and 30s, as heard on its new CD, Sweeping the Clouds Away.
The way I look at it, says Crawford, Mark McCain could have grown up to lead dance bands in the 1920s and 30s. As a young man who sang and played the guitar in two episodes, he might have made his way to Los Angeles, where there was lots of work for musicians in the early 1900s. By 1931, when he would have been the same age that I am now, he might have been leading his own band. I like to think he would have.
Born in Los Angeles in 1946, Crawford grew up in a show-business family. His father was a film editor, his mother was a pianist, and all four of his grandparents made their living in music.
As a kid, I remember listening to the 78s wed inherited from my grandparents, the dapper-looking performer recalls. I was most interested in the old dance bands, because the sound was so wonderful. I listened to other kinds of music, but Ive never stopped loving what I first heard on those old dance-band records.
Crawford began his TV career as one of Walt Disneys original Mouseketeers, appearing on the debut of The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955. He became a national star when The Riflemanone of the most popular series in an era when Westerns dominated TVhit the airwaves in 1958. Audiences loved the dramatic storylines and the genuine rapport between Crawford and Connors, who died in 1992.
What boy wouldnt love dressing up as a cowboy and getting paid for it! Crawford says with a laugh. It was hard work, and I took it very seriously as an actor, but I was living in a dream.
Holly George-Warren, a Western film and TV scholar and author of Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, believes the connection between the American West and television was a natural one. Hollywood found that Western movies translated well to the small screen, she says. With its father-son dynamic, The Rifleman bridged the early, innocent Westerns, like Hopalong Cassidy and The Gene Autry Show, with the more violent, adult Westerns that came later, like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. It was a wonderful family show but had its dramatic elements, too. I remember me and all my girlfriends having crushes on Johnny.
Crawfords music career began during The Riflemans five-year TV run. As a teen-idol pop vocalist, he charted five Top 40 pop hits in the early 60s, the most successful being Cindys Birthday. When the TV show ended, he continued to sing and to act in TV shows, films and on stage.
After spending time as a vocalist with The Nighthawks, a popular dance orchestra in New York, Crawford returned to Los Angeles in 1989 to start his own group. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner was an early supporter, hiring the band to play at his famous mansion. Before long, Crawfords orchestra was packing fans into hotel ballrooms and finding steady work playing lavish Hollywood events and private parties.
Its a unique, romantic sound, and people love to hear it, says Crawford, who lives in Los Angeles. It takes people back to an older America and a simpler, more elegant time. Its a sound I really love, and I find that once people get a chance to hear it live, in all its glory, that they love it, too.