Walter Ward, lead singer of the Olympics, an R&B; group whose biggest hit was the 1958 novelty tune "Western Movies," has died. He was 66.
Ward, who last performed with the group in November, died Monday at his home in Northridge after a long illness, said Freda Sinclair, the group's agent.
At a time when America was preoccupied with western-themed movies and TV shows, "Western Movies" told the story of a man who lost his girl to the horse operas on the tube. The song -- complete with gunshots, ricochet effect and doo-wop harmonies -- peaked at No. 8 on Billboard's pop charts.
The group continued to place singles on the charts for eight years.
"(Baby) Hully Gully" helped kick off a dance craze in 1960, and "Big Boy Pete," released the same year, was the inspiration for the Kingsmen's "Jolly Green Giant," according to a 1984 Times story.
Ward and his cousin, Eddie Lewis, formed the group, originally known as the Challengers, in 1954 while at Centinela High School in Inglewood. Another duo that the Challengers kept beating in local talent shows asked to join the group, so the new quartet called itself the Olympics after picking the name out of a hat, Ward told The Times in 1990.
Tragedy befell the group when Charles Fizer, an early lead vocalist, was shot and killed during the Watts riots in 1965. Another singer, Melvin King, left the group after his sister was accidentally shot and killed about the same time, Lewis said in 1990.
Revamped versions of the quartet, which continued to include Ward and his cousin, failed to match earlier successes, but the Olympics found an enduring home on the oldies circuit in the U.S. and overseas.
Ward was born Aug. 28, 1940, in Jackson, Miss., and sang gospel with his father and three uncles as the Ward Brothers. The family moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s.
Even though he had been ill, Ward continued to perform with the Olympics several times a year, last appearing at a Doo-Wop Spectacular on Nov. 12 in Long Island, N.Y.
Ward is survived by a son, Dwayne of Los Angeles; and two sisters, Bessie Ward of Phoenix and Magdelene Enyard of Los Angeles.
Services will be held at noon Monday at Simpson Mortuary, 3443 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood.