INTERVIEW: The Truth About “Riders in the Sky” (Catching Up with Stan Jones’ Biographer Michael Ward)

In 1948, Eden Ahbez—fresh off his success with “Nature Boy”—met songwriter Stan Jones. The latter had a tune he’d written—”Ghost Riders in the Sky”—which, in time, became as much a standard in country and rock music as “Nature Boy” was to jazz and pop.

Ahbez, with collaborator Cowboy Jack Patton, helped Jones place “Riders,” first with folk singer Burl Ives, who had a minor hit with it, then with Vaughn Monroe, whose definitive version shot to #1 in the spring of 1949. Much was written in newspapers from that time about Ahbez taking part in the top song of ’49, just as he had a full year prior with “Nature Boy.”

To clear it all up, however, I recently sat down Michael K. Ward, author of Ghost Riders in the Sky: The Life of Stan Jones, the Singing Ranger (Rio Neuvo Publishers). Below, Ward walks me through his own research on Jones, and recounts the story of how Ahbez and Jones crossed paths to bring “Ghost Riders” into the popular imagination.

Brian Chidester (01/12/2015)

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Stan Jones Cover-2

Brian Chidester: During research for your Stan Jones biography, did you ever figure out how Jones first met Eden Ahbez?

Michael Ward: When I interviewed Stan’s widow Olive in 2006 she implied that Ahbez and Stan met at the Hollywood music store where he [Stan] had just cut a 78 demo disc of “Ghost Riders.” I’m guessing that’s about as close to the truth we’ll get; every other reference I found during my research about the two of them meeting in Hollywood was not specific at all.

BC: As I’ve heard it told in the research I’ve done on Ahbez, “Ghost Riders” was basically a poem that Stan Jones brought to Ahbez, and that the music came much later. Any evidence that Ahbez and/or his friend Cowboy Jack Patton contributed to the songwriting or arranging of “Riders”?

MW: According to Olive Jones, Stan wrote “Ghost Riders in the Sky” on the front porch of his Death Valley ranger station. ‘About ten minutes on a Sunday morning’ is how she described her husband’s composing of his remarkable song.

Burl Ives Sheet Music-2

BC: So it was a complete thing before it crossed Ahbez’s path?

MW: It’s very unlikely that either Ahbez or Cowboy Jack Patton had any influence at all on the music or lyrics of “Ghost Riders.” Stan didn’t make the trip to Hollywood to try and get “Ghost Riders” and a number of other of compositions published until September of 1948. He probably wrote “Riders” sometime in 1947, and his other songs were all written either in Mount Rainier or in Death Valley, when he worked for the National Park Service. I found no references at all that he had crossed paths with Ahbez prior to 1948 and found no evidence to a relationship with Cowboy Jack Patton. There’s a chance, of course, they may have met after Stan was forced to quit his Park Service job in Death Valley, and moved to L.A. in July of 1949.

BC: Why do you think Jones offered Ahbez part of the royalties to “Riders” then?

MW: Stan and Ahbez were serendipitous birds of a feather, both happy with who they were, in love with nature, and not particularly enthused about accumulating financial wealth. According to an article in Billboard, Ahbez gratefully offered part of his royalties from “Nature Boy” to the doorman at the Lincoln Theater [ed. It was Nat “King” Cole’s valet, actually], who delivered the song to Nat Cole. Stan was moved to naturally make a similar generous offer to Ahbez.

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BC: Do you know how much, percentage-wise, Ahbez was offered? I’ve read differing accounts.

MW: According to a number of 1949 newspaper articles, Billboard included, Stan offered exactly half the amount of his first royalty check—$100,000, an incredible amount of money in 1949—to thank Ahbez for the role he played in getting the demo recording of “Ghost Riders” to Burl Ives. Eden politely declined the offer saying that he was getting along just fine on about 3 dollars a week.

BC: Amazing. As you may or may not know, Ahbez had a hell of a time collecting anything on his own “Nature Boy,” until he had a friend help him with a series of lawsuits starting in 1972.

MW: I discovered no evidence that Ahbez received any royalties from Stan’s song.

Parade Dec. 10, 1950-2

BC: No, me neither. Switching gears, I know that Ahbez himself wrote a number of Western-style songs with and for Cowboy Jack Patton in 1949-50, including titles like “Trail’s End,” “Guitar Totin’ Cowboy” and “The Jalopy Song.” Country-Western composer Stan Gardner, who did some work with Patsy Cline in the 1950s, also wrote an unreleased song with Ahbez around this time. Did you ever find evidence of Stan Jones and Ahbez writing together again?

MW: The only songs Stan co-wrote with another songwriter, after he left Death Valley, that I am aware of, was a song co-written with Dmitri Tiomkin for the film Steel Trap in 1952, and the theme song for the TV series Cheyenne, which he co-wrote with William Lava around 1956.

BC: To your knowledge, did Jones and Ahbez stay in touch through the years?

MW: Stan Jones was a very gregarious guy who was always loyal to his friends. We can assume that he crossed paths with Ahbez over the years, but, once again, I have no hard evidence from my research that describes any subsequent meetings between the two after 1950.

Stan Records-2

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