A Musical History
Johnny Crawford is well known for his portrayal of Mark McCain, the young son of Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) in the television western The Rifleman (1958-1963). While that role brought him to prominence in the homes of America, Johnny also made his mark in the music world.
John Ernest Crawford was born on March 26, 1946, into a theatrical and musical family. His earliest memory is that of his mother playing the piano. His maternal grandfather, Alfred Megerlin, was a renowned lead violinist in Germany and Belgium before WWI and moved to America in 1914. Before they married, Alfred was grandmother Frances’s violin teacher. Their daughter Betty became an accomplished pianist as she grew up in their music-centered world. Frances taught violin and Alfred was a concertmaster and first violinist for the New York Philharmonic, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Fox Studios orchestra until his death in 1941.
Johnny’s paternal grandfather, Bobby Crawford (1889-1941) worked for Irving Berlin, which led him to join with famed songwriters DeSylva, Brown and Henderson to form the Crawford Music Corporation. With them he published many hit songs of the 1920s and had a managing relationship with Al Jolson, which evolved into producing Broadway plays and musicals. He sold his Crawford Music catalog to Warner Bros in 1929, then continued his career as a manager and Broadway producer through the 1930s. When Mr. Crawford passed away in 1941, he left a treasure trove of sheet music and original recordings. Johnny always loved the fact that his grandpa Bobby was a music publisher and manager of Al Jolson. Johnny also loved the musicals of the 50s and had a passion for the westerns and comedies of the silent film era.
When Johnny was 6 years old, his Sunday School teacher, who was also an agent, began sending him out for film work. Johnny’s fencing coach, Ralph Faulkner, got the call from Disney to send youngsters with special talents to audition for the The Mickey Mouse Club. Johnny and his brother Bobby auditioned as fencers. After their demonstration, they were asked if they could do anything else. At the suggestion of his grandmother, Johnny stated that he could imitate Johnnie Ray, then sang his hit song “Cry.” This earned Johnny a spot on the Red Team as a Mouseketeer. Johnny appeared in 16 episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club (1955). During this time he experienced his first recording session with a brief solo. His voice lacked power, but it held softness and a sincere delivery. When the show reduced the number of Mousketeers, Johnny was cut after the first season.
In 1958, after numerous guest parts, Johnny landed the role of Mark McCain on The Rifleman. He was nominated for an Emmy Award during the first season, as best supporting actor (continuing character) in a dramatic series. His brother Bobby and father Robert were each nominated for an Emmy in other categories that same year. Robert Senior enjoyed acting, but unlike his sons, his Emmy nomination was for best editing (The Bob Cummings Show).
During this period, it was popular for young actors to launch recording careers. Some friends of the Crawfords were attending a cocktail party along with Bob Keane of Del-Fi Records. He mentioned that he was looking for a young actor who could sing. The friends told Keane about Johnny. A meeting between the Crawfords and Keane followed, resulting in a contract with Del-Fi. The first song that Johnny recorded was “Daydreams” in 1961. He promoted his new career by singing on The Rifleman in the final two seasons.
Johnny recorded three albums with Del-Fi, starting with “The Captivating Johnny Crawford” in 1962. “A Young Man’s Fancy” and “Rumors” followed soon after. Del-Fi also released several versions of greatest hits collections. Johnny had eight Billboard top 100 hits:
- Cindy’s Birthday #8 (June 22, 1962)
- Rumors #12 (December 14, 1962)
- Your Nose Is Gonna Grow #14 (August 3, 1962)
- Proud # 29 (February 8, 1963)
- Patti Ann #43 (April 6, 1962)
- Daydreams #70 (June 25, 1961)
- Cindy’s Gonna Cry #72 (October 4, 1963)
- Judy Loves Me #95 (January 17, 1964)
Johnny and Bobby as The Crawford Brothers recorded the songs “Good Buddies” and “You Gotta Wear Shoes.” Two of Johnny’s favorite songs from this time are “Living in the Past” and “Rumors,” which he remade in 2012.
In 1965, Johnny starred in the film The Restless Ones with Kim Darby. He recorded a dozen tracks for the soundtrack album, which featured songs of inspiration and the western standard “Ghost Riders In The Sky.”
When Johnny wasn’t acting or singing, he could often be found at the rodeo. He was a member of the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) and the AJRA (American Junior Rodeo Association). Johnny competed in steer wrestling, calf roping, bronc (saddle & bareback) riding, and bull riding. He also did trick roping with his good friend Gene McLaughlin.
During his two year stint in the Army, Johnny was stationed in Queens, NY. Here he became great friends with director Charles L. Turner, who awakened his passion for musicals of the 1930s, which Turner screened on 16mm prints at his home. Johnny worked on his guitar skills and became a fan of the songs of the 1920s and ’30s. (More on his time in the Army here.)
When he got out of the Army, Johnny bought a classic roadster which, he said, put him in touch with his grandfather Bobby’s spirit. Johnny spent time exploring the treasure trove of sheet music and original recordings left by his grandpa. He reinvented himself as a crooner, sometimes compared to Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. He also amassed a vast collection of song lyrics from the era. He put them on index cards and practiced singing them throughout his daily chores. In the late 1980s, he spent two years as the lead vocalist with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks in New York. His time with the Nighthawks convinced him that he could make a living with this music.
Johnny formed Crawford Music Services in 1990, providing live music for events. The Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra specialized in Big Band jazz and swing music from his favorite era. Authenticity was extremely important to him, so he used original period arrangements. Johnny also turned the band’s appearances into performance art, donning a tuxedo with tails and a top hat. He would step into character and stay there, addressing the audience as though they actually were in the 1920s. The Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra was ranked among the top orchestras of its kind in Los Angeles. Its client list included Paramount Pictures, Fox Television, the Art Directors Guild, UCLA, and USC.
The orchestra released “Sweepin’ The Clouds Away” in 2008, a collection of 14 authentic orchestrations from 1929 to 1937, recorded during live performances at the L.A. County Museum of Art and in the historic Gold Room of the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel.
Johnny continued to perform with his orchestra and make guest appearances at western festivals until recently. His last film appearance was a cameo role as silent film cowboy William S. Hart in Bill Tilghman and the Outlaws (2019). His family shared the news in early 2019 that Johnny had Alzheimer’s disease. His family, fans, and friends worked together to raise funds for the specialized care that Johnny required.
Johnny passed away peacefully on April 29, 2021. His wife, Charlotte, was by his side.
– by Tracey Bacus, with contributions from Bobby Crawford and M. Stacey Shaffer