Some random neuron in WC’s aging brain fired off recently and the lyrics to the theme to The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp started running through WC’s head. WC can say with certainty that he hasn’t heard the tune in something like 60 years. WC can’t remember for five minutes where he left the car keys, yet from out of the foggy depths of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the complete lyrics to a bad television theme song emerges. Go figure.
The only way WC knows to get rid of an ear worm is to pass it along. WC apologizes in advance.
For those born since the late Pliocene, The Legend of Wyatt Earp was one of a seeming endless cowboy television series – horse operas – in the early days of television. The series ran from 1955 to 1961, and featured Hugh O’Brian in the titular role. The television series had about the same relationship to the real Wyatt Earp (and the real West) as Boones Farm Tickle Pink had to real wine. But that’s true for all of the horse operas back in the day. Crikey, the TV producers didn’t even give O’Brian Earp’s signature moustache.
The theme song was written by the amazingly prolific Harry Warren (neé Salvatore Antonio Guaragna). Warren penned 800 songs, and a number of them remain well-known today: “Jeepers Creepers,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “You must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” and “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” to name just a few. By all accounts, he was a gifted songwriter, highly regarded by his peers, and a much sought after collaborator. He won the Academy Award for best song three times. But even the most gifted songwriter can have a bad day. The theme song to The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp must have been written on one of Warren’s really bad days.
[Intro Chorus] Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, Brave courageous and bold. Long live his fame and long live his glory and long may his story be told. I'll tell you a story a real true life story A tale of the Western frontier. The West, it was lawless, but one man was flawless and his is the story you'll hear. [Chorus:] Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, Brave courageous and bold. Long live his fame and long live his glory and long may his story be told. When he came to Kansas, to settle in Kansas, He dreamed of a peaceable life, Some goods and some chattel, A few head of cattle, A home and a sweet, loving wife. (Chorus) Now he wasn't partial to being a marshal, but fate went and dealt him his hand, While outlaws were looting, and killing and shooting, he knew that he must take a stand. (Chorus) Well he cleaned up the country The old wild west country He made law and order prevail. And none can deny it The legend of Wyatt Forever will live on the trail. (Chorus)
In reality, Wyatt Earp was a card sharp, a prize-fight fixer, the owner of brothels in at least four states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Alaska), a saloonkeeper and a revengeful killer. Unusually for a man of his many careers, he died in his bed at age 80. He may have had a role in “taming” the Wild West, but he likely had in even larger role in making it wild. Earp was married four times (two or three times by common law marriage statutes). But never divorced. He told one interviewer he “didn’t believe in divorce.”
The myth of Wyatt Earp, as opposed to the reality, is due in large part to a fictionalized “biography” of Wyatt Earp written by Stuart Lake titled Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal published in 1931, two years after Earp’s death in 1929. While Lake had a few interviews with Earp before his death, Lake admitted that during those interviews Earp had been “inarticulate,” that “in speech, he was at best monosyllabic.” Lake said he felt “journalistically justified in inventing the Earp manuscript.” Lake said his intent was to find “a method that would stamp mine [his book] as authentic. Possibly it was a form of ‘cheating.’ But, when I came to the task I decided to [employ] the direct quotation form sufficiently often to achieve my purpose. I’ve often wondered if I did not overdo in this respect.”
Never mind that the book was mostly made up; between the book and the efforts of Earp’s wife, Josephine, to sanitize Earp, the legend has long since supplanted the reality. As just one more example, despite Lake’s book title, Earp was never a U.S. Marshall; he was twice a Deputy Marshall.
In an 80-year life, the only part most folks know about is the 30-second shootout in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. It has spawned countless books, eight hollywood movies and is re-enacted daily all summer in Tombstone today. And, by the way, the shootout wasn’t really near the OK Corral. But facts don’t get in the way of legends. And legends can spawn some really wretched songs. Like this one: