“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 tells the tale of someone who has been jilted and because of that, can play a film part of someone sad and lonely without knowing anything about acting. It has been recorded by many other artists, including Loretta Lynn, Dwight Yoakam, Mrs. Miller, and Kidsongs. The most well-known other version is from the Beatles in 1965. Featuring Ringo Starr taking the lead vocal, it became a featured performance number of his in concert, both with the Beatles and later with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band.
Russell, originally from Mississippi, 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 were not 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.
The Beatles covered the song in 1965 on the United Kingdom version of their album Help!. It was released as the B-side of “Yesterday” in the United States.
The song was sung by Ringo Starr, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic called it “an ideal showcase for Ringo’s amiable vocals.” They performed the song during an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show which was taped on August 14, 1965, and broadcast on September 12, 1965. It was also performed at the Beatles’ famous Shea Stadium concert on August 15, 1965, and played at some concerts throughout The Beatles’ 1965 US tour (alternating with Starr’s other song, “I Wanna Be Your Man”).
Recorded 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 did not yet have a vocal on Help! They originally recorded the song “If You’ve Got Trouble” earlier in 1965 as Starr’s intended song for the album, but were dissatisfied with the results and recorded “Act Naturally” to replace it. It was the last cover they recorded until the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in 1969.
Because Capitol Records’ version of the Help! album included only the songs that appeared in the film Help!, plus incidental music from the film, the label held back “Yesterday” and “Act Naturally” and issued them 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 US 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 became one of the ones closely identified with Starr and he has performed it on every tour iteration, and virtually every show, of Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, beginning in 1989.
Ringo Starr – lead vocal, drums
George Harrison – double-tracked lead guitar
Paul McCartney – harmony vocal, bass
John Lennon – acoustic guitar