There have been many memorable television theme songs, but when it comes to measuring the greatest of all time, it's hard to argue with the numbers. The twangy, galloping theme from Bonanza has been recorded dozens of times in various styles, both instrumentally and with vocals. It was voted the 58th best western song of all time by the Western Writers of America. A guitar instrumental broke into the Billboard Top Twenty in 1961. The Man in Black performed it on television.
Even within the opening credits of the show itself, the song evolved over fourteen seasons. Horns and percussion were tweaked, tempos were increased.
A little bit country, a little bit surf, the irresistible ditty written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans featuring orchestration by David Rose is a piece of American history — Jamaican, too. You might be surprised at how versatile the tune is. Check out a dozen different takes on Bonanza.
1. Jay Livingston, Ray Evans and David Rose (1959)
You've got to start with the television show opening.
2. The cast of Bonanza (1959)
Yes, there were lyrics. A few different versions of them, in fact. In the original pilot of the show, the cast sings the theme at the close of the show. It was deemed a touch too corny and cut out. Still, it's fun to hear the Cartwrights belt it out.
3. Marty Gold and His Orchestra (1960)
The first version released for sale was this zippy take by Gold, a jazz band leader known for novelty tunes, pop covers and swinging bachelor pad grooves. This is one of the campier takes on the tune. Listen to it on Spotify.
4. Johnny Gregory and His Orchestra (1960)
Yes, the Brits love cowboys, too. This vocal take was released in the U.K.
5. Buddy Morrow and His Orchestra (1960)
Buddy serves up a brassy spin with a jumping, Django-y guitar solo.
6. Al Caiola (1961)
Guitarist Caiola showcased his instrument with this super twangy riff that could almost be mistaken for Dick Dale. This is the version if you need to dance. No wonder it charted the highest at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100.
7. Johnny Cash (1962)
Cash ditched the original lyrics and wrote his own. Who's going to argue with that? He's Johnny Cash. The Man in Black stayed true to the TV series with references to the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa. It's both tougher and more poetic. Only Cash could do that. Other country acts like Faron Young covered this iteration.
8. Valjean (1962)
Despite the exotic name, Valjean was from Oklahoma. The pianist strips the song down for his instrument, which appeared on an album of television tunes to capitalize on his popular original theme for Ben Casey.
9. Billy Vaughn (1962)
This perky take by the pipe smoking jazz man drops more echo on the guitar and adds some peppy "Do Do Do Dos."
10. Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra (1963)
Sinatra's collaborator and orchestrator of choice included this on his second volume of TV themes. Who remembers I'm Dickens… He's Fenster and its theme?
11. Lorne Greene (1964)
Bonanza star Lorne Greene scored a hit with "Ringo," a song we deemed perfect for the new Tarantino. Naturally, he had to tackle his own theme, which appeared as a B-side.
12. Carlos Malcolm & The Afro Caribs "Bonanza Ska" (1965)
Ska was still a relatively new genre (and reggae had not yet come along) when trombonist Malcolm cut this track for the legendary Trojan records. The giddy-up of the original makes a perfect match for the upbeat rhythm of ska. This version was covered by second wave British ska act Bad Manners.