Johnny Russell was a singer, songwriter, comedian, and popular Grand Ole Opry performer best known for writing (in cahoots with Voni Morrison) the hit song “Act Naturally”. Covered by numerous artists, most notably Buck Owens and the Beatles, “Act Naturally” was the sort of career-making song on which Russell could have rested for the remainder of his life. He chose not to, however: There were more where that came from, including “Let’s Fall To Pieces Together” (a No. 1 for George Strait in 1984), “Got No Reason Now For Going Home” (cut by Gene Watson), and the honky-tonk weeper “Making Plans”. The latter was a hit for Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton and also wound up on the first Trio album featuring Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt.
Russell was born January 23, 1940, in Sunflower County, Mississippi. When he was 12, his family moved to California, where he started writing and recording. In 1959, an early Russell composition, “In A Mansion Stands My Love”, was chosen as the B-side to country superstar Jim Reeves’ soon-to-be smash hit “He’ll Have To Go”. Russell’s biggest break came in 1963, when Owens recorded “Act Naturally”; the Beatles followed suit in 1965.
Russell’s own recording career blossomed in the 1970s, when he signed with RCA. Thirteen of his songs made the country Top 40 during this time, among them “Catfish John”, “The Baptism Of Jesse Taylor”, and the working man’s anthem “Rednecks, White Socks And Blue Ribbon Beer”, which reached No. 4 in 1973. He also recorded for Radio, ABC, Mercury, and other labels. Russell’s final album was Actin’ Naturally, featuring guest spots from Parton, Owens, Marty Stuart and others on remakes of his best-loved material.
After enduring a long battle with diabetes, Russell died July 3 at age 61 in a Nashville hospital. In a curious twist of fate, his passing came on the very day of his old friend Chet Atkins’ funeral.