Fans of old movies, and anyone who’s ever watched a western on a wet Saturday afternoon, will have fond memories of the actor Walter Brennan. Forever the amiable, often irascible, sidekick (as he was to John Wayne in the classic Rio Bravo), Brennan is the only actor ever to win three Best Supporting Actor Oscars – and one of only three actors to win three Oscars throughout their careers (the other two being Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day Lewis, fact fans).
Born in 1894, Brennan began acting in vaudeville at the age of 15, but it wasn’t until the late 20s that he started getting bit parts in the movies: apparently he was forced back into acting after losing the fortune he had made in real estate during the stock market crash. He appears, uncredited, in Horse Feathers (the Marx Brothers), The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein amongst countless others, but it was his role in the Howard Hawks/William Wyler drama Come and Get It (1936) which first brought him to prominence, and won him the inaugural Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In a career that spanned almost 50 years, his ‘grumpy old man with a heart of gold’ shtick added colour to many a movie and, from the 1950s, he was a popular star of American TV, with the lead role in early sit-com The Real McCoys.
But we’re not interested in his acting prowess: oh no! For Walter Brennan also released more than a dozen (honestly! A dozen!) albums. After narrating an album of Mark Twain tales in 1956 and continuing with the obscure By The Fireside, his recording career got off to a real start with the 1962 release Dutchman’s Gold. Many of these records – with their painful, hokey, homespun, spoken word performances – sold by the bucket load and even garnered him a couple of hit singles the biggest of which, Old Rivers (the tale of a young boy’s friendship with an older man and his mule), made the US Top Five!
Many a non-singing artist has released a spoken word performance but I can’t think of one who has released quite as many and with so much commercial success. However by the dawn of the 1970s Brennan’s recording career had dried up: one of his last albums (apart from compilations and film soundtracks) was the bizarre, right wing political polemic He’s Your Uncle – Not Your Dad which tore strips off the LBJ administration. The whole album is available for you to download at WFMU. His last foray into the studio produced his final album, 1970’s Yesterday When I Was Young
So here’s a smattering of cuts from Walter Brennan, including both sides of his biggest hit Old Rivers/The Epic Ride of John H Glenn (which I was lucky enough to pick up whilst on holiday recently and which charts the career of the first American to orbit the earth), and his horrific version of the Mel Tills/Kenny Rogers classic Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.