Johnny Bond had several successful facets to a career that lasted over 30 years. As a member of the Jimmy Wakely Trio and as a session musician, he was an important support musician in dozens of B Westerns, working alongside Wakely, Tex Ritter, and Johnny Mack Brown. As a songwriter, he was responsible for several compositions that became country standards, including “Cimarron,” “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” “Conversation With a Gun,” “Tomorrow Never Comes,” and “I’ll Step Aside,” which became hits for everyone from Billy Vaughn & His Orchestra to Johnny Rodriguez. He also contributed mightily to the recorded music of Wakely, Ritter, and other country stars of the 1940s and 1950s. And his own recordings — which included work with such luminaries as Merle Travis — were popular from the 1940s onward, and included several hits, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that he had the biggest record of his career, “Ten Little Bottles.”
Cyrus Whitfield Bond was born in Enville, Okla., on June 1, 1915, to a poor farming family. His first instrument was the trumpet, but as a boy he also learned to play the guitar and the ukulele, and by the time he was a teenager he was entertaining at local dances — his main inspiration was the playing of Jimmie Rodgers and Milton Brown and the Light Crust Doughboys. After graduating from high school in 1933, he headed for Oklahoma City to try for a career on radio, first broadcasting under the name Cyrus Whitfield, and later as Johnny Whitfield, before he settled on Johnny Bond. In Oklahoma City he also hooked up with Jimmy Wakely and Scotty Harrell (later replaced by Dick Reinhart), with whom he formed a group, originally known as the Singing Cowboy Trio and later the Bell Boys, in acknowledgment of their radio sponsorship from Bell Clothing. Their repertoire in those days was influenced heavily by the work of Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers, and featured many cowboy songs. They did their broadcasting on radio station WKY, and cut transcription discs at KVOO in Tulsa. By then, Bond was already writing songs of his own, and in 1938 he wrote his first classic, “Cimarron.” Gene Autry saw their work when he was on tour late in the 1930s and indicated his interest in using them on his Melody Ranch radio show, should they ever make it out to California.
By 1939, they were brought out to Hollywood for an appearance, under the name of the Jimmy Wakely Trio, in The Saga of Death Valley, starring Roy Rogers and produced by Republic Pictures. This taste of movie work registered with Wakely and Bond — there was more film work being offered by Republic, and Autry’s offer was difficult to ignore. In May of 1940, Wakely, Bond, Reinhart, and their families headed west in Wakely’s Dodge. They immediately became regulars on Melody Ranch, and Bond continued to play on the show for 16 years, until it was canceled in 1956. They also made their second film appearance, in The Tulsa Kid, starring Don “Red” Barry, with the group credited as “Jimmy Wakely & His Rough Riders.” The group later moved to Universal, making its debut there in Pony Post (1940), starring Johnny Mack Brown. And they played the usual concerts, ballrooms, and clubs throughout southern California.
Bond, Wakely, and Reinhart — along with Scotty Harrell, who came out to Hollywood a little later and was welcomed back into the fold — continued to work together in the early ’40s in various configurations, although the Wakely Trio had more or less ceased to exist officially after 1941. Curiously, it was Bond — and not Wakely — who was the first member of the trio to get a recording contract of his own. Art Satherly of Columbia Records, who’d previously signed Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Leadbelly, and a dozen other music legends to recording contracts, got Bond under contract in 1941, and his first recording sessions were held in August of that year. The highlight of those sessions was “Those Gone and Left Me Blues.”
In April of 1942, he cut four songs, covers of the recent Carson Robison hits “1942 Turkey in the Straw,” “Mussolini’s Letter to Hitler,” and “Hitler’s Reply to Mussolini,” in an attempt to give Columbia covers of the Robison hits, but the company decided not to release them. Bond also began getting his own songs published during this period, most notably “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” and “Cimarron.” In July of 1942, he cut another four songs, among them “I’m a Pris’ner of War” and “Der Fuhrer’s Face,” as well as the originals “You Let Me Down” and “Love Gone Cold,” backed by a band that included Spade Cooley on the violin. The wartime recording bans imposed by the Musicians’ Union, coupled with the shellac shortages of the era, interrupted Bond’s career on record until June of 1945, when he cut three originals, “Heart and Soul,” “Gotta Make Up for Lost Time,” and “Sad, Sad and Blue.” In addition to his appearances on the Autry show and other radio programs, and performances on behalf of the war effort, Bond recorded many radio transcription discs, and also worked in 38 films, either as a musical sidekick to the hero, in the case of Jimmy Wakely or Tex Ritter, or in the musical sequences built around non-singing heroes such as Johnny Mack Brown or Ray “Crash” Corrigan, and even showed up with his group in non-Westerns such as the comedy Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga (1941), starring Leon Errol and Lupe Velez. He made a rare appearance in a major film, as a supporting player in David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, during 1946, and his last movie appearance took place a year later in Jimmy Wakely’s final Western, Song of the Wasteland (1947).
Meanwhile, Bond was also a member and leader of Tex Ritter’s studio band, the Red River Valley Boys, and was playing on his records as well as those of other West Coast country stars. The end of his movie career in 1947 was more than made up for by his burgeoning success as a recording artist. Bond had three Top Five country hits that year, “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed” (which sold well, though not quite as well as the version by his friend Merle Travis), “Divorce Me C.O.D.,” and “The Daughter of Jole Blon.” The next year, he had a Top Ten hit with “Oklahoma Waltz,” and in 1949 he hit the charts in a big way twice with “Till the End of the World” and “Tennessee Saturday Night.” He was back in the Top Ten again in 1950 with “Love Song in 32 Bars,” and in 1951 he hit again with “Sick, Sober and Sorry.” Several of his Columbia records (his best period) below:
By the end of 1957, Bond had written 123 songs, several of which — “Cimarron,” “I’ll Step Aside,” “Tomorrow Never Comes,” and “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” — were very heavily covered by numerous other artists. The most successful version of “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” was the cover by Johnny Rodriguez, but it was also recorded by Bobby Bare, Roy Clark, Flatt & Scruggs, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Monroe, the Louvin Brothers, Hank Snow, Red Allen & the Kentuckians, and even Arthur Alexander. “Cimarron” was not only a country standard, with versions by the Sons of the Pioneers, Foy Willing, Bob Wills, and Jimmy Dean, and concert renditions by Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins, but it was also recorded by Les Paul and Mary Ford and as an instrumental by Harry James and Neal Hefti, with Billy Vaughn & His Orchestra doing the biggest-selling version of them all. “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a hit for Glen Campbell, but was also covered by Lynn Anderson, Elvis Presley, Little Jimmy Dickens, Loretta Lynn, the Statler Brothers, and Ernest Tubb. “Conversations With a Gun” was recorded by Tex Ritter and Marty Robbins, among others, and “I’ll Step Aside” done by Hank Thompson, Ernest Tubb, and Marty Robbins.
Bond played with Autry on his tours during the 1940s and 1950s, and his place in the band was later taken by Johnny Western, a younger singer with a surprisingly similar rich baritone voice. Unlike a lot of country artists of his generation, he wasn’t too threatened by the coming of rock & roll, and even tried — in some cases successfully — to adapt his sound to the new beat, which, he was the first to recognize, wasn’t too far from country music. Additionally, much of Bond’s music had a rollicking sense of humor that made it closer in spirit to some early rock & roll than many other country artists of the day. Despite his acceptance of changing tastes and trends in music, however, Columbia Records declined to renew Bond’s contract when it was up in 1957, at it seemed as though his career on records might be at an end.
He spent a brief time on Autry’s Republic Records label, for which he recorded “Hot Rod Lincoln,” a crossover record that did well and later became a rock & roll standard. Then, in 1960, Bond was signed to the Starday label, beginning an 11-year relationship with the company. In 1964, he recorded a new version of “Ten Little Bottles,” a song that he’d previously done twice, as far back as 1954 — this proved to be the biggest hit of Bond’s career, rising into the Top Three and making it to number one on some charts. Unfortunately, none of Bond’s follow-up records, including the comical “Morning After,” sold nearly as well.
Part of Bond’s problem may have been that either he or Starday evidently decided to continue trying to hit with more drinking songs — the majority of his songs and albums during the middle and late ’60s were dominated by such songs, making him seem like a one-note performer and songwriter. Not even the presence, albeit uncredited, of Tex Ritter on a song like “New Year’s Day,” recorded in 1965, could coax some major chart action out of the public. His contract with Starday ended in 1969, and Bond immediately signed to Capitol — where Ritter had been trying to get him a contract for more than 20 years — and Bond recorded a Delmore Brothers tribute album with his longtime friend Merle Travis. It didn’t sell, however, and by the end of the year both Bond and Travis were gone from Capitol. He resigned to Starday and remained there only for another two years before leaving permanently in 1971. He continued making records for the Lamb & Lion label, and then moved over to his old friend Jimmy Wakely’s Shasta label in 1974, where he did one session, backed by James Burton and Red Rhodes, re-recording some of his best-known records out of the past, including his own “Cimarron” and “I’ll Step Aside,” as well as covers of Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills” and a reprise of “Hot Rod Lincoln.”
In 1965, Autry decided to revive his Radio Ranch series on his own station, and Bond renewed his weekly broadcasts on that show, as a musician, singer, and script writer, for another five years, until it was canceled once again. Starday, by contrast, released 14 Bond albums between 1960 and 1971, which included various collections of hits and recent singles as well as concept LPs (most of them after 1963 built around drinking songs), the best of which was 1961’s That Wild, Wicked But Wonderful West. Additionally, in 1969, he recorded one album, Great Songs of the Delmore Brothers, with his old friend Merle Travis on Capitol, and cut individual albums for the Lamb & Lion and Shasta labels, which also issued radio performances by Bond from Wakely’s radio show in the late ’50s.
Bond died on June 12, 1978. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999. ~ Bruce Eder, All Music Guide