Music Online. Under the Radar
“The Voice of Canada”
TORONTO. March 19/23 – Lorne Greene, a singer? You gotta be kidding me.
Mention his name and one recalls Ben “Pa” Cartwright, the family patriarch of the Western TV series Bonanza. The Ottawa, Ontario-born performer was also recognized as Commander Adama in the original science fiction TV series Battlestar Galactica and Galactica 1980.
Two great roles, among many, and well-remembered acting notches on his career belt.
But, bet you didn’t know he’s classified as a musician and singer who recorded a string of country (C&W) and folk albums and that he recorded a chart-topping single called Ringo.
He was born on February 12, 1915, to Russian Jewish parents Daniel and Dora (née Grinovsky). Lyon Himan Green was Chaim to his mother but his middle name was spelled Hyman on school report cards. In My Father’s Voice: The Biography of Lorne Greene penned by daughter Linda Green Bennett in 2003, she confirmed she didn’t know when he switched to the name Lorne, nor when he tagged “e” to his surname.
When I was 16, I discovered wildlife. My father took me to a place called Algonquin Park in Northern Ontario – it has some 1,600 lakes.
While enrolled in chemical engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Greene was bitten by the drama bug. He also loved broadcasting and joined CFRC, the university’s radio station. After graduation in 1937, he was hired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
Lorne Greene on nature, love, responsibility, “Bonanza” and more (1983).
Click HERE to watch this video
World War II saw him serve as a Royal Canadian Air Force Flying Officer. Returning from duty, CBC appointed him the principal National News newsreader, nicknamed “The Voice of Canada”. His role earned him a second nickname, this time by listeners as “The Voice of Doom”, because of how he read the distressing news of Canadian servicemen and women’s names killed during the war. An interesting sidebar – during his time in radio, he invented a stopwatch that ran backward to assist announcers to determine how much air time remained while speaking.
His deep, rich, and authoritarian voice got him another gig, narrating National Film Board of Canada documentary films, notably the 1941 production Fighting Norway. Greene left the CBC after the war to freelance, a result of the network’s decision to request on-air announcers to hand over portions of their film narration income. He continued to freelance for the CBC and signed on as a CKEY newsreader in Toronto while returning to the live stage and radio acting roles.
He relocated to the United States in 1952 after closing a side business, the Academy of Radio Arts, which he founded in 1945. There he trained many of Canada’s broadcast luminaries from Fred Davis and Leslie Nielson to Alvie Scopp and Gordie Tapp. His faculty included a “Who’s Who” of CBC announcers like Andrew Allan, Fletcher Markle, Mavor Moore, and Lister Sinclair. During that time, he also appeared in various Broadway productions before making his 1954 Hollywood debut. In 1955 he played Marcus Brutus at the Stratford Festival’s Julius Caesar.
His first continuing TV role in 1959 made Greene a household name heading the Cartwright family in Bonanza, which lasted 14 years. It was the first 60-minute Western series filmed in colour.
So why and how did he become a singer? Just another career turn in the road. Greene recorded several C&W albums, capitalizing on his Bonanza image. Tunes were a combo of spoken word and singing including the ballad Ringo, which was about a real-life Old West outlaw Johnny Ringo. It received plenty of airplay as one of the numbers on the 1964 album Welcome to the Ponderosa which was the Cartwright ranch in the TV show. There may have been a positive spin tying the tune to Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, but not really so.
Click HERE to hear this recording
From 1961-66 he released 10 albums. His discography includes – Robin Hood of El Dorado, Bonanza Ponderosa Party Time; Young at Heart, Christmas on the Ponderosa, Welcome to the Ponderosa, The Man, Have a Happy Holiday, and Portrait of the West. His 12 singlesrecordedfrom1962 -76 – My Sons My Sons; I’m the Same Ole Me, Ringo (on Welcome to the Ponderosa), The Man, Ol’ Tin Cup, Five Card Stud, Daddy’s Little Girl, Waco, It’s All in the Game, Daddy, I’m Proud to be Your Son, First Word, Spirit of America. His filmography as a narrator and actor numbers 67.
Lots of accolades over the years acknowledged Greene. On October 28, 1969, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 1971, Queen’s University awarded him an honourary doctor of laws degree. In 1974 he received the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement and in 1987, copped the Earle Grey Award for Lifetime Achievement at Canada’s Gemini Awards. In 2006, he became one of four entertainers honoured by Canada Post and is featured on a 51-cent stamp. His star shines on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
He was twice married, fathering three offspring. At age 72, Greene died from pneumonia complications after ulcer surgery in Santa Monica, California, on September 11, 1987. ♦
Credits: Photo Canadian History Ehx/YouTube; TV Crew Guy/YouTube; Legacy Recordings/YouTube
David Eisenstadt is the author of Under the Radar, 30 Notable Canadian Jewish Musicians. He is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.
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-I worked with Lorne Greene on Queen Elizabeth’s 1st Command Performance in Canada at Charlottetown in 1964. He emceed the event. The Travellers closed the show’s first half. Later Prince Phillip, so enamoured with our group, he invited us to London to sing at The Palladium. – JG, Thornhill, Ontario, Canada
-Very nice – as a native Ottawan, I appreciated reading Greene’s story. – MK, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
-Growing up in Medicine Hat, Alberta, a small prairie city, I enjoyed westerns and country music. I remember many of Lorne Greene’s songs and knew of his tale about ‘Johnny Ringo’…and that it wasn’t about the Beatles drummer. – AB, Calgary, Alberta
-Like many baby boomers I spent the hour between 9:00 to 10:00 every Sunday watching the Cartwright family adventures led by Father “Ben’ aptly portrayed by Lorne Greene. I knew he was Canadian and Jewish, but was unaware of all his talents especially as a singer-musician. Thank you for enriching my body of knowledge. – MR, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
-Thanks for the Lorne Greene memories. I would have loved THAT voice to read one of my poems on line (with or without music). I had forgotten about Battlestar Galactica. It was a long time ago, and I did not know about the stopwatch invention. – GB, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
-Never knew that Pa Cartwright was Jewish or a singer, Did know about his CBC news reader reputation during the Second World War. Thank you for sharing this info! – ML, Aurora, Ontario, Canada
-As a kid growing up I Ioved watching Bonanza, but even more I loved the song Ringo yet – I always thought it was weird to hear Pa Cartwright singing that song. – ER, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
-I have to laugh. He grew up in Ottawa beside my mother’s home… she used to giggle when she saw him on Bonanza and say in Yiddish “he’s now an actor?” – SK, Highland Beach, Florida, USA
-We played Ringo on our Jazz.FM91 Tuesday radio show a week ago. What a legacy to go along with those resonant pipes. Many cool coincidences in his life to mine and my Dad’s. Keep ’em coming! – DM, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
-Fascinating, David. Who knew? – CL, Naples, Florida, USA
-Great article, David. Every Sunday night, my brother Bernie and I faithfully watched Bonanza and one of my very first singles was “Ringo”. – SF, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada