Told from the perspective of a person watching television, the song tells of the interaction between a gunslinger stock villain, "Salty Sam," and a ranch owner, "Sweet Sue," on an unnamed television show.
The TV show features various damsel in distress scenarios, whereby Sam abducts Sue and places her in peril, intended to force her to give him the deed to her ranch – or face a gruesome death:
- In the first verse, the narrator watches Sam attempt to kill Sue by cutting her in half in an abandoned sawmill.
- In the second verse, the narrator fixes a snack during a commercial break, and comes back to see Sam attempting to blow up Sue in an abandoned mine.
- In the third verse, apparently tired of the show, the narrator changes channels – only to find another episode of the same show, this time with Sam attempting to stuff Sue in a burlap sack and throw her in front of an oncoming train.
However, Sue is rescued, and Sam's plans foiled, by the hero – a "tall, thin, slow-walkin', slow-talkin', long, lean, lanky" fellow named Jones. (How Jones defeats Sam and rescues Sue is never told.)
The song was inspired in part by the 1945 Gary Cooper film Along Came Jones, a Western comedy in which "long, lean, lanky" Cooper mercilessly lampoons his "slow-walkin', slow-talkin'" screen persona; songwriter Mike Stoller studied composition with Arthur Lange, who composed the score for the film. "What was original in the humor of 'Along Came Jones' was not its parody of shoot-'em-ups … What was new were black voices mocking an iconic Caucasian genre fifteen years before Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. Leiber's original lyrics sharpened the racial angle by calling attention to the hero's white hat, white boots, and faithful white horse. Those lines did not pass muster with Jerry Wexler, the executive producer at Atlantic to whom Leiber and Stoller generally reported."
A cover version was recorded by novelty pop artist Ray Stevens in 1969, reaching a peak of #27 on the Billboard Hot 100. Stevens was also the voice of "Salty Sam," and (in falsetto) of "Sweet Sue," who screams for help and makes humorous ad-libs ("there he go again, tyin' me up, same routine," "here comes the train, here comes the train," etc.) The record features dubbed-in laughter and cheering from a "live" audience, and includes a brief quote from Rossini's "William Tell Overture" before it ends. Another cover was done by the Righteous Brothers on their Sayin' Somethingalbum (1967), notable for "And then?" vocalist Bill Medley losing his patience with the story as told by Bobby Hatfield by the third verse.
Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones (of The Monkees fame) did a cover version with Monkees songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, on the album Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart in 1976. Jones makes humorous comments in a British mock-posh accent ("That's not cricket, old chap"). "Yakety Sax" is interpolated during the saxophone solo.
The song is alluded to in the song "Million Dollar Bash" by Bob Dylan.