How the ‘Bonanza’ Theme Song Was Written in 1 Day

Bonanza and its cast members quickly became a fan favorites when the show aired on September 12, 1959. One of NBC‘s longest-running western TV series went on for 14 seasons and over 430 episodes. Although the stars of the series became popular, the music, specifically the Bonanza theme song, stole the show.

Its twangy rhythm distinctly marked the opening credits. While the tune changed throughout the 14 seasons the show aired, it was always recognizable.

About ‘Bonanza,’ NBC’s beloved Western series

Dan Blocker as Eric 'Hoss' Cartwright, Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright, and Michael Landon as Joseph 'Little Joe' Cartwright film a scene for Bonanza
Bonanza stars Dan Blocker as Hoss Cartwright, Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright, and Michael Landon as Little Joe Cartwright | NBCU Photo Bank

Bonanza first aired back in 1959 and lasted through the years until it ended in 1973. The show’s title was a term used by miners to identify a large vein or deposit of silver ore.

The series chronicled the adventures of the Cartwright family, who lived on a ranch on the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The family patriarch, Ben Cartwright, was a three-time widower who had three sons with very different personalities.

Unlike other westerns, Bonanza‘s storylines often focused less on “stories about the range,” instead concentrating on the relationship between the brothers and their father, along with adding commentary regarding current social issues.

The memorable theme song added to Bonanza‘s appeal. The initial sounds resemble galloping horses, a nod to ranch life, and make it one of the most recognizable TV show songs to this day.

The ‘Bonanza’ theme song

The theme song was created by Jay Livingston, Ray Evans, Billy Mays, and David Rose before production or casting for the show even began. The group wrote the song in only a day before selling it to NBC.

According to Classic Country Music, the original plan was to have the Cartwright family sing the lyrics while riding on horseback during the opening credits. The studio and musicians deemed it “too campy” and scrapped the lyrics in exchange for a purely instrumental opening.

That opening catapulted Bonanza into TV theme song history. Over the course of the show’s run, the theme song was recorded and revised by various artists. Even with all the changes, it remains one of the most memorable TV openings.

Johnny Cash took a stab at the song in 1962, rewriting the lyrics with Johnny Western. Lorne Greene, the actor who played Ben Cartwright, revised the lyrics and recorded a new version in 1964. Toward the end of the series, a revamped horn and percussion section changed the original score. Then, in 1970, a new theme song, titled “The Big Bonanza,” was used.

Why did Michael Landon hate the song?

Bonanza was Landon’s first starring TV role. He portrayed the youngest Cartwright son and would go on to write and direct several episodes of the series. Landon later starred in two more highly successful TV shows, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.

During interviews, Landon would often talk of his time on the set of Bonanza. But in an interview on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, he dropped a bomb about his feelings on the show’s successful theme song.

When asked about it, Landon said it sounded like a car commercial to him. He told Carson there were lyrics to the song initially, but he didn’t sing on it. Carson couldn’t believe it, but Landon broke into the famous diddy to prove it. “We got a right to pick a little fight, Bonanza! Any one of us who starts a little fuss knows he can count on me. One for four, four for one. That’s our guarantee.”

Landon might not have approved of the song, but millions of viewers still remember it as one of the best.

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