An impressionable 12 year old rode to the top of an Arizona hill one afternoon with an old Cowboy friend to check a windmill. A big storm was building and they needed to lock the blades down before the wind hit. When finished, they paused to watch the clouds darken and spread across the sky. As lightning flashed, the Cowboy told the boy to watch closely and he would see the devil's herd, their eyes red and hooves flashing, stampede ahead of phantom horsemen. The Cowboy warned the youth that if he didn't watch himself, he would someday be up there with them, chasing steers for all eternity. The terrified boy jumped on his horse and took off for the the safety of home. Years later, he recalled that scary, dark afternoon and on his 34th birthday, Stan Jones sat outside his Death Valley home and wrote "(Ghost) riders in the Sky."
Born in the southeastern Arizona town of Douglas in 1914, Stan grew up surrounded by cattle ranches, cowboys and the beauty of the desert. In later life he often went back to get away from the stresses of Los Angeles.
As a boy, he told and wrote ghost stories for his classmates. One neighbor recalled, he would finish his stories along about the time she had to be home for dinner. And she would sometimes be too scared to walk the block or so to her house. She remembered him as a handsome boy with wavy blond hair and dimples. He had a lot of friends.
He moved to California and lived with a sister while he went to college. His love of learning and adventure took Stan all over the West. He worked in the big copper mine in Jerome, Arizona, and traveled to the Pacific Northwest where he drove a snowplow, worked as a logger and ate smoke as a firefighter in the forests. During WWII, Stan was a field director for the American Red Cross in Bend, Oregon. There he met and married a beautiful co-worker. According to Olive Jones, their 20 years together were always a challenge and always interesting.
Because of his love of the outdoors, Stan joined the National Park Service. A midJuly job transfer brought him to the desert of Death Valley, where he wrote many of his songs. He used an old Martin guitar Olive had bought him as a surprise. She had hidden it in a closet and one day a failing coat set the strings vibrating. Stan said he ".heard the angels sing" when the sound came through the door and once he found it, the guitar was seldom out of his sight.
When they moved to Death Valley, they found a temperamental air conditioner, no radio, TV or phone - just a two-way radio, and when the car occasionally broke down, the only transportation was the old Park Service truck. Stan told Olive she would soon have the desert in her blood and in spite of the inconveniences, it was true. Most evenings they sat outside and watched the desert sunset and often Stan found something to write about.
The Park Service made Stan its representative to Hollywood film crews when they came to Death Valley. After a long, hot day of filming, cast and crew members often sat around and listened to Stan's songs and stories. They encouraged him to get a publisher in L.A. His songs made the rounds and Burl Ives was given one about a "ghost herd in the sky" which he liked enough to record. When the master was finished, someone called Vaughn Monroe and played it for him. Monroe rushed to L.A. and cut the record himself and released it before Ives' came out. The rest is history - the song became one of Monroe's biggest hits. Dozens of other singers released the tune and a few years later, when asked on a Sons of the Pioneers radio show which version he liked best, he didn't hesitate in saying the Pioneers'.
Veteran Cowboy actor George O'Brien introduced Stan to his friend and mentor, the legendary director John Ford. When Ford heard Jones' music, he insisted he write the score for the movie Wagonmaster. The Sons of the Pioneers were chosen to do the vocals, but did not appear in the movie. Jones then wrote much of the music for Rio Grande. Ford also gave Stan a chance to act in this movie. He was the sergeant who presented the Regimental Singers (a.k.a. the Sons of the Pioneers) to John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara and appeared in other scenes.
Jones also wrote most of the music for John Wayne's favorite Western, The Searchers.
When Stan quit the Park Service, the Jones moved to Lake Tahoe and he would drive to L.A. when required. As more projects became available, the need to have a place close to work necessitated a move to the coast. Stan and Olive found a beautiful home overlooking the growing Tarzana area where one of their neighbors was Rex Allen.
Walt Disney Studios hired Stan to do music for many of their movies and TV shows including "Spin and Marty." Stan occasionally appeared on them and on "The Wonderful World of Color" singing a Western song. Disney released a number of these songs on albums as well.
There were other movies, TV, and independent albums and in the mid-50's he teamed up with writers and a producer to do the TV series "Sheriff of Cochise" starring John Bromfield. He created the show, co-starred in it, and wrote some scripts and music. He also wrote and recorded for the Standard School Broadcasts, a program radio stations broadcast into schools around the country.
Stan never went anywhere without a book and his thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. He worked on a manuscript for a book on glaciers and was writing a novel based on Queen Nefertiti of Egypt.
In his brief career, Stan Jones wrote over two hundred songs. About one hundred were recorded, including "Song of the Trail," "Saddle Up." "Lilies Grow High," "Cowpoke," and the TV theme ' Cheyenne." The numerous awards including gold records still line the walls of the Jones house in silent testimony to the millions of records sold over the years.
Stan Jones died in 1963, at age 49, and at his request, was buried in his hometown of Douglas. A tall pine now shades his grave from the Arizona sun.
It's hard to say how many hundred of songs were left unwritten and stories left untold. But the words and music he gave us made an indelible impression on the minds of the world. There are few places one goes where the haunting melody and lyrics of "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" are not recognized and loved and that is an eternal legacy of which one can be very proud. (By Michelle Sundin from conversations with Olive Jones)
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