"They're gonna put me in the movies/ 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." - Act Naturally - Johnny Russell-Vonnie Owens.

When Johnny Russell died at 61 on July 3, 2001, his biggest musical earner was Act Naturally - the song that topped charts for Buck Owens and later Ringo Starr & The Beatles.

A battalion of artists including Hank Locklin, Brian Hyland, Charley Pride, Cowsills, Jody Miller, Andy Stewart and Homer & Jethro also recorded the classic hit.

It has since earned a massive $20 million royalties for the late, twice wed father of a son, also named John, and daughter Julie Morris.

And, shortly before Russell's death, he also released a bluegrass duet version of the song with Owens on his 2000 album Actin' Naturally.

Russell, born in Roundaway and raised at Moorhead in Sunflower County in the Deep South in Mississippi, on January 23, 1940, was a prolific writer.

He moved to Fresno, California, at 12 and was 18 when he wrote and recorded In A Mansion Stands My Love for Radio Records in 1958.

It became a hit for Jim Reeves as the flip side of his 1960 million seller He'll Have To Go.

Russell told me about his writing of Act Naturally in interviews before and after his concert at Loretta Lynn's famed Dude Ranch in July, 1978.

The singer and then singing spouse Beverly Heckel were planning an Australian tour to research the production of a local syndicated country music TV show.

Johnny wed Beverly when she was 17 and she became his long time touring and duet partner.

We researched the demand and cost of producing a TV show similar to those hosted on U.S. TV by Owens, Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare and Glen Campbell.

Instead, now in 2006, we're about to film Series #6 of Nu Country TV for C 31.

The interviews took place in Nashville and Waco, Texas - latter day hometown of Billy Joe Shaver.

The first happened when Russell and Heckel joined Loretta, various siblings and Kenny Starr of Blind Man In The Bleachers fame for a boy scouts concert in mid summer.

It ended with a midnight BBQ at the Lynn mansion with Loretta's late husband Mooney cooking steaks and southern fried chickens.


"Well, I'll bet you I'm gonna be a big star/ might win an Oscar you can never tell/ the movies gonna make me a big star/ 'Cause I can play the part so well." - Act Naturally.

"I wrote Act Naturally in 1961 but it took a few years for Buck to record it," revealed Russell, then 38, whose song Catfish John was also a hit in Australia for the Hawking Brothers.

The song source mirrored the story of Russell who returned to California from Music City after a failed Nashville foray.

It was the result of a casual comment made by Russell during a phone conversation.

"I was in Fresno, visiting my mother," Russell revealed.

"I had a date and the record company that I was working for called and told me I had to come to Hollywood for a session. I called the girl and told her I had to cancel our date. She asked, 'Where you going?' and I said, 'I'm going to Hollywood. They're gonna put me in a movie and make me a big star.' I wrote the song in about 15 or 20 minutes. I never called the girl again, but I had a song."

Russell initially fought a protracted battle to have his song recorded by Owens as his minders claimed it wasn't hit material.

"I tried to get the guy who was recording at the session country/pop singer Dale Ward to cut it, but he couldn't learn it," Russell recalled.

Eventually, the song found its way to Owens.

Vonnie Morrison, with whom Russell shares writing credit, was working at the time as a singer in Owens' band at the Fresno Barn.

Morrison gave Owens an acetate but Buck was more interested in the flip side ballad penned by Russell.

"He was going to record a different one, a ballad, but he changed his mind," Russell recalled.

"I can't even remember the name of the ballad. No one ever recorded it."

The song continued to languish until Owens' guitarist Don Rich, learned the number.

According to Russell, Owens and Rich were riding along in their truck one day when Rich began singing the song.

The number had grown on Owens and the flood of covers began.

"You never expect anything out of a song when you write it," Russell reasons. "You don't know what's going to happen to it. It's like one of your kids, you just hope for the best for it."


Well I hope you come and see me in the movies/ then I know that you will plainly see
The biggest fool that ever hit the big time/ and all I gotta do is act naturally."

The Beatles performed Buck's first #1 hit Act Naturally from 1963 on Ed Sullivan's TV variety show in 1965.

Ringo Starr sang lead vocals on the version that soon showed up as the flip side of Yesterday.

Starr later teamed with Owens in 1989 to cut yet another version of the song.

Act Naturally was one of Owens' few hits he didn't have a hand in writing, and at least two of his songs became major hits for other artists.

"The Beatles were big fans of Buck's, and that's how they came to record the song," Russell recalled.

"I never thought that it would be recorded by the Beatles but I'm not complaining."

The song resurfaced during a recent Academy Awards telecast in a commercial for Blockbuster.

After The Beatles hit with the song, another musician at this session unsuccessfully sued claiming he had written part of it.

Both Ward and Voni Morrison were among those who testified that Russell had written it all himself.

"I met her in California," Russell said.

"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. I wrote Act Naturally and Making Plans myself. None of the songs she wrote ever got recorded."

Russell was amazed by the song's lucrative longevity.

"I just found out that Blockbuster used it for a commercial," Russell revealed shortly before he died.

"It's going to be in a new Denzel Washington movie. It just keeps making money. It's unbelievable."

Almost as incredible what Russell did the day he learned The Beatles had recorded it,
"I went home and mowed the yard," Russell said.

"I called a friend who was a salesman at Capitol and asked him 'How many copies is this going to sell?' He said 'It's coming out next Monday, and we've already sold over a million.'"


Johnny Russell with Dolly Parton
The Trio (Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt), George Strait, Gene Watson, George Jones, George Hamilton 1V, Del Reeves, Wilburn Brothers, Statler Brothers, Burl Ives, Patti Page and Bobby Vinton all covered Russell songs.

Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner also earned him royalties as a duet by cutting his songs including Making Plans - later cut by The Trio.

Russell was posthumously admitted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2001 with prolific hit writer Dennis Linde and the Everly Brothers.

Chet Atkins signed Russell to RCA in 1970 and released singles Mr and Mrs Untrue, What A Price, Mr Fiddle Man and Rain Falling On Me.

He broke through with #20 hit Catfish John in 1972, anthemic 1973 hit, Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer and The Baptism Of Jesse Taylor (1973-4).

Singles included She's In Love With A Rodeo Man, Our Marriage Was A Failure, Obscene Phone Call, You'll Be Back Every Night In My Dreams, While The Choir Sang A Hymn I Thought Of Her and Song Of The South.

His RCA albums were Catfish John and Mr and Mrs Untrue (both 1972), Rednecks, White Socks & Blue Ribbon Beer (1973), She's In Love With A Rodeo Man (1974) and Here Comes Johnny Russell (1975).

After leaving RCA in 1977 he recorded for Polydor-Mercury from 1978-81 and 16th Avenue from 1987.

He had his last chart hit - a duet with Little David Wilkins on Butterbeans - in 1987 and later released Something Old, Something New for NQD Records.


"We'll make the scene about a man that's sad and lonely/and beggin down upon his bended knee/I'll play the part but I won't need rehearsal/ all I gotta do is act naturally."

Russell included Got No Reason Now for Going Home - a Top 10 record for Gene Watson in 1984 on his 2000 bluegrass album Actin' Naturally.

The album featured Buck, Marty Stuart, Dolly Parton, Crystal Gayle, Earl Scruggs, Del and Ronnie McCoury, Bobby Osborne and Bobby Bare.

"I had just gotten a divorce," Russell revealed of the Going Home song source.

< Johnny Russell with Marty Stuart

"I got off the interstate one evening, and thought to myself 'I got no reason for going home.' By the time I got to my house, I had the chorus and a verse written. Later, I went out to Nashville Now to see Gene - we'd worked a lot of shows together - and
I handed him a tape and said, being funny, 'Cut it!.' He said 'I'll listen to it.' I said, 'I can get anyone to listen to it. Cut it!'

He also wrote George Strait #1 hit Let's Fall to Pieces Together with Tommy Rocco and Dickey Lee.

"We were writing one day, and we got stuck," Russell added.

"Dickey got on the phone, Tommy went into his office, and I dozed off. The suddenly Tommy came in and yelled out the title. After that it came together pretty fast."

Dolly Parton appeared on Russell's new version of Making Plans that she originally released in 1980 with former singing partner Porter Wagoner.

Russell, suffering diabetes, had both legs amputated on April 17. 2001.

He died almost three months later on July 3 and was survived by son John, daughter Julie Morris, four grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

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