He's been a Mousketeer, a top-40 singer, the first man to appear naked in Playboy and, while still a teenager, an Emmy-nominated actor.
But it's the music of the 1920s and '30s that brings Johnny Crawford to the Quad-Cities in two weeks as a guest performer at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport. He and his orchestra released the album "Sweepin' the Clouds Away" in 2011.
At 67, the 1950s-'60s co-star of TV's "The Rifleman" talks from his California home about Bix's music, how he's in demand around Los Angeles to perform those classic tunes and the resurgence of the Chuck Connor series, which left the air 50 years ago this summer.
Q: I guess first of all, what will you be doing here?
A: Singing. I got in touch with (Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society vice president) Joe Hesse about the first of March and we agreed it would be worthwhile for the festival. I've always wanted to go to the festival and haven't been before. ... I've always been a big fan of Bix Beiderbecke and the bands that he played in. I wanted to visit his hometown and see everything and be with other people who appreciate his legacy.
Joe was very enthusiastic, and I was glad to find that enthusiasm.
Q: How long have you been into the Bix-era music?
A: I've always loved the period of '20s-'30s-era music. I inherited 78- rpm records from my grandparents that I started listening to. I was 5 years old when I started to learn to operate the turntable. I've liked music since then that was contemporary, but nothing appealed to me as much as the dance band records, primarily from that time. ... I always gravitated toward that.
Of course (Bix) was a legend. It took me a few years to be aware of what made him so special because he wasn't a singer, he was a sideman. My musical ear didn't get educated until later. But I loved those records and got excited when I acquired a collection of his records that were produced in the late '60s by Time-Life. They came with three LPs and a wonderful book. I put that on a cassette and took it with me when I was doing a play in Texas and was there for a couple of months. He was so unique. He was not a showoff like so many trumpet players are. Drummers and trumpet players are very enthusiastic players and they want to be heard, but sometimes they get carried away.
Traditional jazz in general seemed to be more respectful of the composition, and yet so many of the players on those records added so much to it with their interpretation and their expression. His was always sweet and right on tempo and uplifting. He had a beautiful tone. It stands out when you know what to listen for. You know when it's Bix or someone influenced by him.
Q: How long have you been performing the Bix-era music?
A: I was at the Playboy Mansion in 1972 and I was hearing this great music that was obviously from that period. (With) one record, I asked (Playboy founder Hugh) Hefner who it was and he told me the singer was Bing Crosby. I knew Bing Crosby was around then, but I got the album — I think it was called "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams." ... Then I started collecting the lyrics and the chord changes and started playing them on the guitar. I wasn't very confident as a performer for a while, but friends started pushing me into singing these songs. I just enjoyed it so much. ...
(A friend) put me together with (bandleader and Bix jazz festival regular) Vince Giordano and told me that Vince had lost his vocalist and was looking for someone. I spent a few years out East being his vocalist and in his special-event business. It never occurred to me there was that avenue for a singer. I learned a lot and it turned out to be very lucrative. Vince was a hard worker and kept getting jobs up and down the coast. ...
After a few years, I decided to move back to Los Angeles and start my own live music business. Since 1990, '92 ... my niche is providing period music. I've done some work in film with that, and I have a lot of regular clients that hire my services. Every year I do the costume designers' awards. I do the Art Directors Guild awards. This coming February will be the 17th year my orchestra has played for that at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. That's just been a great job. I do some interesting private parties for celebrities and entertainment business events and meet some wonderful people.
I'm not going to bring my own musicians because it's not in the budget, but there's going to be plenty of good musicians and bands there. I'm going to be working with (Quad-City drummer and bandleader) Josh Duffee and (pianist) Jon Weber, and I know a lot of other people like (Bix jazz fest performers) Andy Schumm and Randy Sandke from working with Vince Giordano. I can't wait to get up there. There's a lot of Bix songs that I've wanted to perform that I don't get the chance to do.
Q: "The Rifleman" has really resurfaced, hasn't it?
A: I've been busy making appearances all over the country since "The Rifleman" has been playing every day on Me-TV, and Saturday mornings they show multiple episodes on AMC (the cable channel). There's more interest in me than there has been in a long time. It's very rewarding. I'm very fortunate to have that in my background. People are curious about me and I get wonderful messages from people on my Facebook page, and I really enjoy taking advantage of that in meeting people. ... I'm meeting people and selling my CD.