By the 1920's, Ritter became a pioneer of country music and Western radio dramas as a singer and voice actor. Notable work included a role on New York City's first broadcast Western, The Lone Star Rangers.
Early success on radio airwaves landed Ritter an opportunity to record for Columbia Records. Cowboy songs he cut for Columbia included the classic "Rye Whiskey" as well as "Goodbye Old Paint." He also recorded 29 songs for Decca Records between 1935 and 1939, highlighted by original versions of "Sam Hall" and "Whoopie Ti Yi Yo."
Ritter relocated to Los Angeles in 1936, the year of his film debut, Grand National Pictures' Song of the Gringo. Other notable films from Ritter's run of B-Westerns for Grand National include Trouble in Texas (1937), so-starring Rita Hayworth.
After leaving financially troubled Grand National in 1938 for Monogram Pictures, Ritter began making singing cowboy films with fellow actor and future wife Dorothy Fay, such as Song of the Buckaroo (1938) and Rainbow Over the Range (1940).
A run with Universal Pictures followed, teaming Ritter with Johnny Mack Brown in Cheyenne Roundup (1943) and other classics. Films featuring Ritter but not Brown include Marshal of Gunsmoke (1944) and Oklahoma Raiders (1944). Another '40's film of note, Take Me Back to Oklahoma, co-starred Ritter's fellow Texan and recording artist Bob Wills.
Around that same time, Ritter became one of Capitol Records' first country music stars after the chart-topping success of 1944's "I'm Wastin' My Tears on You."
Ritter also impacted the country charts with "There's a New Moon Over My Shoulder," "Jealous Heart," "You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often," "The Deck of Cards" and "Daddy's Last Letter (Private First Class John H. McCormick)."
In one of Ritter's breakthrough small screen moments, he performed "High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin')," the Oscar-winning theme song of the 1952 Gary Cooper film High Noon, at the first televised Academy Awards ceremony.
Another hot streak for Ritter as a recording artist came in 1953 when he began hosting ABC's Ozark Jubilee. Some of his best work followed: "Remember the Alamo," "Just Beyond the Moon," "The Wayward Wind" and "I Dreamed of a Hill-Billy Heaven."
Ritter's most surreal addition to popular culture came as the voice of Big Al, one of the animatronic bears in the Walt Disney World Resort's Country Bear Jamboree attraction. As Big Al, he sang "Blood on the Saddle" in a show filled with songs by The Stoneman Family.
Ritter even tossed his hat into the political arena, unsuccessfully running in Tennessee's 1970 Republican primary election for United States Senate, losing out to eventual general election winner Bill Brock.
His son John Ritter starred in the TV series Three's Company and numerous films, while grandsons Jason and Tyler have also found success as actors.
This story first ran on April 8, 2020.