Stanley Davis Jones was born in Douglas, Cochise County, Arizona on June 5, 1914. He was the youngest of seven children of John Jones and Berta Davis. His parents had come from the southeastern US, and after a few years in Texas, then a brief spell in Mexico, where Stan's closest sibling Jeanne was born, they settled in Arizona. Stan's father originally owned a small grocery store, then later worked as a shipping clerk. Stan learned to ride at an early age, roaming freely over the desert landscape. Neighbor kids later recalled that he was good at telling ghost stories.
By age 15, Stan and his widowed mother were living in Los Angeles with older sister Jeanne and her family. Stan attended UC Berekley in the early thirties, riding the rodeo circuit during breaks for living expenses, but interrupted his education for a hitch in the navy around 1934. After leaving the service he became a copper miner in Jerome, Arizona, then moved to the Pacific Northwest, where he worked as a logger in the summer and drove a snowplow for the railroad in the winter. He then signed on to fight forest fires with the National Park Service, becoming a forest ranger himself in the late thirties. He was assigned to parks all over the western United States, a life that suited him fine.
During WWII Stan was field director for the American Red Cross in Bend, Oregon. In 1943 he met and married a fellow Red Cross volunteer, a schoolteacher named Olive. Stan later told Time
magazine, "Most rangers marry schoolteachers, doggoned if I know why". Olive bought Stan his first guitar for a birthday present. Thereafter he was seldom seen without it, filling in the long nights at remote postings by writing songs.
In 1948, while stationed at Death Valley, the National Park Service assigned him as a technical advisor to a Columbia movie crew making The Walking Hills
. During breaks in the filming, Stan would play the songs he'd written. The movie folks suggested he should try to sell those songs, so he recorded some on his own, then went the rounds of music publishers, without success at first. One fellow though, liked a song called Riders in the Sky
, and persuaded Burl Ives to record and release it on Columbia. The song was then picked up by Bing Crosby and released on Decca, with Vaughan Monroe and other singers quickly doing the same.
Gene Autry made an entire movie around the song Ghost Riders in the Sky
(1949), and put out his recorded version of it as well. Stan's songs were next used for two John Ford movies, Wagon Master
(1950), and Rio Grande
(1950), both featuring Stan's friend, Harry Carey Jr
. In the latter film, Stan made his first appearance on screen, as a cavalry sergeant. Stan would have two more brief roles, in Gene Autry's Whirlwind
(1951), based on Stan's song of the same name, and Rex Allen's The Last Musketeer
(1952). For the next two years Stan's songs would be used in six more films, one of them The Steel Trap
(1952), being the only non-Western film with which he ever was associated.
When Harry Carey Jr was hired for the role of Bill Burnett in The Adventures of Spin and Marty, he suggested using his friend Stan as well. Stan wound up both writing songs, and performing them on camera, for the only time in his career. Stan wrote all the songs sung by the Triple R campers throughout the first two seasons, with the exception of Slewfoot Sue. Though some of his songs were used into the third season, the "show" tunes of the The New Adventures of Spin and Marty were written by others. Stan himself would only appear in the first season's serial, in a role created for him.
It's impossible to understand the effect of Stan's songs without some awareness of the popularity of western music in contemporary American culture. Western music was acoustic, its traditional mode narrative, its predominant themes, loneliness and melancholy, were borne of geographic isolation. It could spawn hybrids like western swing (exemplified by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys), but its core identity was submerged when all other forms of popular music were overwhelmed by rock. The essential importance of the music was that a group of teenage boys in the fifties could sing it around a campfire and the viewers would think nothing strange about it.
Stan's acting was negligible to the point of invisibility. He seldom had a solo camera shot, and aside from singing, had few lines to deliver. He was mainly used as a sounding board for the other adult actors. Stan's manner was soft-spoken and gentlemanly. He was never seen without a book or his guitar, was well-liked by the folks at Disney, and would continue to be used there for many years.
Stan worked on the soundtracks for The Searchers, Westward Ho, the Wagons!, and The Great Locomotive Chase (the last two for Disney) in 1956, but only acted in the last one. He also did an episode of Cheyenne, besides co-writing the theme song with William Lava. Stan's longest recurring role was for the initial season of the television show Sheriff of Cochise (1956-57). According to Stan's widow, he was a major force behind this modern-day police drama, set in his home county in Arizona. Stan played Deputy Olson, and was also credited with the theme song and some of the teleplays. Former Mouseketeer Mary Sartori also appeared on this show, which was later renamed to US Marshal.
Stan did yet another John Ford epic, The Horse Soldiers
(1959), where he wrote the song heard over the opening credits, and had a small uncredited speaking role as Ulysses Grant. He also continued to work for Disney, doing music and acting in the three-part series Daniel Boone
for Walt Disney Presents
in 1960. That same year he acted in the film Ten Who Dared
, with Spin and Marty
co-stars David Stollery
and Roy Barcroft
, all of them again being directed by William Beaudine Sr
Stan was reckoned to have written over two hundred songs, from which he has seventy-four published songwriting credits on ASCAP. He formed two music companies during his lifetime: Stanley Music Company, and the later Stanley Mills Ranger Music Company, to publish songs for his last album. Stan released his first album in 1958, Creakin' Leather
, on the Disneyland label, later rereleased as Ghost Riders in the Sky
on the Buena Vista label. His second album, This Was the West
, also on the Disneyland label, was released in September 1958. Stan died in Los Angeles, at age 49, on December 13, 1963. His last film, Invitation to a Gunfighter
, was released a year after his death.