In One Take, Bill Hayes Tied His Legacy to Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier

David Hinckley
5 min readJan 14, 2024

As a pop singer, Bill Hayes was the quintessential one-hit wonder. But if you can only have one pop hit and you’d like people to remember it, he picked the right one: “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” the most popular song in America from March 26 to April 30, 1955.

Bill Hayes, who died Friday at the age of 98, had a pretty good run himself. He dropped out of college to train as a fighter pilot in World War II. He sang on the Ed Sullivan show and Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Most memorably, he played Doug Williams on the soap opera Days of Our Lives, a role that stretched from 1970 until last year and included, among other things, Doug’s death and resurrection.

To us aging survivors from the early days of the post-World War II baby boom, however, his legacy is having recorded the most popular version of the theme song from Davy Crockett, a Disneyland miniseries that ran three episodes from December 1954 to February 1955 and permanently imprinted millions of young boys with quite possibly their first American hero.

Bill Hayes, to be honest, played sort of an incidental role in that drama. While he had the best-selling version of the song, two other versions also made the top 10 that spring. Fess Parker, who played Davy Crockett in the show, reached #5 despite a marked inability to sing, and Tennessee Ernie Ford reached #5 with what might be called a bemused gospel-ish reading.

Mac Wiseman did a nice bluegrass version that foreshadows the Flatt and Scruggs theme to The Beverly Hillbillies a few years later, and that was only the start of the song’s recording life. Annie Cordy took it to #1 in France the following year, and it was later revived by, among others, the Supremes (with Mary Wilson singing lead), the Kentucky Headhunters, Mannheim Steamroller and Tim Curry. That Curry would sing it was unsurprising, which cannot be said for the 1968 version by Louis Armstrong, who had come a long way from the days when he and his Hot Five cut “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” in 1927.

Moreover, none of these artists were the voices we heard on the TV series. That was the Wellingtons, a folk group who over 15 years toured and recorded with Annette Funicello, Jan and Dean, Stevie Wonder and Donald O’Connor, among many others. A decade after “Davy Crockett,” they became regulars on the TV show Shindig!

The Disney people saw the song as incidental, tucked in the background for filler and transition. Bill Hayes told The MacGyver Project in 2015 that his boss at Cadence Records, Archie Bleyer, called Disney after the first episode aired and Disney told him the song “means nothing to anybody.”

Bleyer, a musician, arranger, businessman and smart fellow, figured otherwise. On December 16, the day after the show’s debut, Bleyer wrote a chart, rang his friend Hayes and brought him to the studio along with two acoustic guitarists, a Jew’s harp player and three background vocalists.

They cut the song in one take, Hayes told MacGyver, and that’s not hard to believe. It doesn’t exactly sound nuanced, which didn’t matter a bit. Hayes, whose Doug Williams character on Days of Our Lives started as a lounge singer, gave it the sing-by-the-numbers reading that was all its pre-teen fans needed.

Like Parker and Ford, Hayes also recorded only a fraction of the song. As written by Disney staffers Tom Blackburn and George Edward Bruns, the full version was an old-style ballad that tracked Crockett for 20 verses. The “radio edit” trimmed that down to six.

Truncating it that way made total sense, since radio wouldn’t play anything longer than three minutes. The short version also stayed true to the spirit of the long version, that is, it promoted the legend. But it did hint at some of the more nuanced elements of Crockett’s life, including his sharp disagreement with a fellow Tennesseean, President Andrew Jackson.

Real-life Congressman David Crockett.

Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, which did just what the name suggests, was popular with the settlers who wanted the new country’s Western frontier for themselves. Crockett was the only member of the Tennessee congressional delegation to oppose the act, arguing that the country should honor its treaties and let Native Americans keep more of their ancestral land. His reward was to get voted out of Congress in 1835, which spurred him to decamp to Texas, where on March 6, 1836, he died at the Alamo.

While the Disney series spends considerable time at the Alamo, the song tiptoes around it, with even the long version saying only that he went there as a freedom fighter.

It’s one of America’s fondest and most misguided myths that everything was better in the olden days. It wasn’t. But in the case of Davy Crockett, give or take some historical details that are less than fully flattering, all those young baby boomers could have been introduced to a lot worse heroes than one who said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”

Hayes told MacGyver in 2015 that when his recording came out, “I went around for about a year with a coonskin cap singing that song. I would sing a set and sing it at the end. I’d invite the kids onto the stage and there’d be a thousand kids that knew every word.”

Sixty years later, he mused, “The song sticks with you. And people buy it today. I get a royalty check about once a year for about three thousand dollars. I don’t know who buys it, but somebody does.”

We can still sing it, too.

Bill Hayes and his wife Susan.

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”