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1958 Johnny Russell from FHS to the Grand Ole Opry
by JoAnn D'Ambrosio Woodward (1958)



Johnny Russell (1940 - 2001)

At a time when every teenager was listening to "Rock Around the Clock," "Blue Suede Shoes" and "The Stroll," Johnny Russell of the Fresno High class of 1958 was singing country music songs. Rock and roll music was almost the only music you heard on the radio and at the record stores, but Johnny had his own world that eventually would catapult him into becoming one of the most influential and successful country music performers of his time.

Johnny came to Fresno at the age of 11 from Sunflower County in Mississippi where he was born in 1940. He often appeared in assemblies during his years at FHS where he would present his favorite country music on his guitar and often would have the audience laughing wildly at his jokes. His most favorite phrase, "Well, now, you just better not do that," was heard often through a huge grin, and put smiles on many faces.

Shortly after graduating from FHS, he recorded his first song, "In a Mansion Stands My Love," which did not make it to any top ten lists, but it caught the attention of Chet Atkins who signed Jim Reeves to record the words written by Johnny. The song was the B-side of Reeve's "He'll Have to Go." The recording established Johnny's reputation as a significant songwriter on the country music scene. Probably his most popular song was co-written with a member of the Buck Owens band and was a number-one hit on the country charts. Two years later, The Beatles recorded it and sold over 30 million copies...who could ever forget "Act Naturally."

Although Johnny did not become a top recording artist, he was extremely influential as a writer. Some of the songs he wrote were: "Makin' Plans" –Dolly Parton, "Got No reason Now for Going Home" –Gene Watson, "Let's Fall to Pieces Together" –George Strait, "You'll Be Back" –Statler Brothers and many more. The biggest recording he made was "Rednecks, White Socks & Blue Ribbon Beer" in 1973 which finished in the top five.

He appeared on many TV shoes, some of which were Hee Haw, Dinah Shore, Dean Martin Show, and was a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. His music was recorded on at least seven major labels and his tremendous career helped land him a "Lifetime Achievement Award" in 1995.

Late in the a980's Johnny suffered a stroke but continued to perform. In 2001, with deteriorating health problems his good friends Vince Gill and Garth Brooks held a benefit concert for him at Grand Ole Opry. In July of that year, Johnny passed away in Nashville, Tennessee at the age of 61.



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