"Act Naturally" is a song written by Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison, originally recorded by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, whose version reached number 1 on the Billboard Country Singles chart in 1963, his first chart-topper. In 2002, Shelly Fabian of About.com ranked the song number 169 on her list of the Top 500 Country Music Songs.
The song has been covered by many other artists, including Loretta Lynn and The Beatles.
Russell, originally from Oklahoma, was based in Fresno, California in the early 1960s. One night, some of his friends from Oklahoma planned to do a recording session in Los Angeles and asked him to join them. In order to do so, Russell had to break a date with his then-girlfriend. "When she asked me why I was going to L.A., I answered, 'They are going to put me in the movies and make a big star out of me.' We both laughed."
Thus inspired, Russell quickly came up with a concept for a love song based around his comment. He wrote it that day, and tried to teach it to the singer he was helping in Los Angeles, but he was unable to learn it. Russell then wanted to record it himself, but his then-producer turned it down, claiming that songs about the movies weren't hit material.
A full two years passed before anyone recorded "Act Naturally." "No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get anyone interested in it," Russell said.
Buck Owens and The Buckaroos version
By 1963, Russell was writing with a woman named Voni Morrison, who also worked with a Bakersfield, California-based singer named Buck Owens. After Russell played "Act Naturally" for Morrison, she thought it would be a natural for Owens, and she told Russell that she could get him to record it. Because no one had yet recorded it, and Russell had an agreement with Morrison to share songwriting credits, he gave her partial credit, though her only role in the song was submitting it to Owens.
Owens didn't like "Act Naturally" at first. But Buckaroo band member, Don Rich, heard Russell's demo version and liked it, and eventually, the song grew on Owens. One night, Russell got a phone call from Owens asking if he could record the song, and he said yes. "I later found out that he had already recorded the song that day and just wanted the publishing rights," Russell said. "I was more than pleased to give him the rights in order to get the song recorded."
Owens recorded "Act Naturally" at the Capitol studios in Hollywood on February 12, 1963, and the single was released on March 11. It entered the Billboard country charts on April 13, 1963. On June 15, Owens' version spent the first of four non-consecutive weeks at #1. In all, it spent 28 weeks on the country charts. The song helped to make him a superstar; before the 1960s were over, Owens had placed 19 singles atop the Billboard country charts. The song also helped establish Russell as a songwriter, and in the 1970s he was modestly successful as a singer as well.
The Beatles' version
The Beatles covered the song in 1965 on their album Help! (in the United Kingdom) and as the B-side of the "Yesterday" single in the U.S..
The Beatles' version is sung by Ringo Starr. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic called it "an ideal showcase for Ringo's amiable vocals." They performed the song during an The Ed Sullivan Show appearance which was taped on August 14, 1965 and broadcast on September 12, 1965.
The Beatles recorded the song on June 17, 1965 in 13 takes. The first 12 takes were evidently used to work out the arrangement; the master was take 13, the only take with vocals. It was mixed the following day. The Beatles almost recorded a song by their engineer Norman Smith, but realized that Starr didn't yet have a vocal on Help!, and so "Act Naturally" was recorded instead, the last cover they recorded until the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in 1969. Smith later had some success as a performer, using the name Hurricane Smith. In 1973 his song "Oh Babe, What Would You Say?" reached 3 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart in the U.S.
Because Capitol Records' version of the Help! album included only the songs that appeared in the movie, plus incidental music from the film, the label held back "Yesterday" and "Act Naturally" and issued them initially as a non-LP single. As the B-side of the U.S. single, "Act Naturally" peaked at #47 in October 1965. The two songs made their first American album appearance on Yesterday and Today, released in the U.S. on June 20, 1966.
When the single was reissued on Apple Records in 1971, "Act Naturally" had the "full apple" side and "Yesterday" ended up on the "sliced apple" side. That is because "Act Naturally" was the intended A-side and has always been listed as such in Capitol's files.
The song features Ringo Starr on Lead Vocals, Drums, and Percussion, Paul McCartney on Harmony Vocals and Bass, John Lennon on Acoustic Rhythm Guitar, and George Harrison on Lead Guitar, which is double-tracked, creating a chorus-like effect.
Buck Owens and Ringo Starr's duet version
In 1989, Owens and Starr, the two most famous singers of "Act Naturally," teamed up for a brand-new version, also creating a lighthearted music video for it, with them playing bumbling versions of themselves playing cowboys in a western being filmed. Released on Capitol Records, the duet peaked at #27 and spent 11 weeks on the Billboard country chart in the summer of 1989. It was not the first time a member of the Beatles had appeared on the country charts: Paul McCartney had done so with Wings in 1974-75 with "Sally G."
The recording was nominated for the 1989 Country Music Association "Vocal Event of the Year" and a 1990 Grammy for "Best Country Vocal Collaboration," but lost both times to "There's a Tear in My Beer," recorded by Hank Williams Sr. and Hank Williams Jr.
Single by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos
Released: March 11, 1963
Recorded: Capitol Studios, Hollywood, Calif., February 12, 1963
Producer: Ken Nelson
Single by The Beatles
from the album Help! (UK) and Yesterday and Today (U.S.)
Released: 13 September 1965 (US)
Recorded: Abbey Road Studios, 17 June 1965
Label: Capitol Records (USA), Parlophone/EMI (UK)
Producer: George Martin