The Singing Cowboy
For three decades Gene Autry nobly rode his gallant horse Champion across boundless arroyos and prairies, fighting for the causes of justice and righteousness in a B-movie portrayal of the American old west; while stirring the imaginations of millions of young boys and girls. He was one of the first singing cowboys to appear on the silver screen (John Wayne was the first, but he did not actually do his own singing). And, certainly, he was the most successful.
But it was not only the fact that Gene Autry did his own singing, but that he wrote, or co-wrote hundreds of the songs he sang, including “Back In The Saddle Again“ and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” which made of him the one true “Singing Cowboy.” He had nine gold records and innumerable hits among the 635 songs he recorded. In fact, he was the first person, ever, to receive a gold record. During his career he sold over one hundred million records.
He was a musical influence upon countless musicians who followed after him- including Roy Brown, whose 1947 release “Good Rockin’ Tonight” helped to usher in the rock and roll era; Fats Domino, whose version of “Blueberry Hill” was released sixteen years after Gene’s original 1940 rendition; and Jerry Lee Lewis, whose raucous career was built from a childhood spent listening to Gene Autry on records and the radio. The popular cowboy trio Riders In The Sky would have no reason to exist whatsoever, if not for the career of Gene Autry.
Gene Autry is the only person to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, one each for radio, records, movies, television and for live performance- including rodeo and theater appearances. Not only that, a city actually changed its name to “Gene Autry.”
Among scores of honors and awards bestowed upon him, he is a charter member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, as well as a recipient of the Songwriters Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. He was feted by his fellow songwriters with a Lifetime Achievement award from ASCAP.
Gene Autry owned a vast empire of radio and television stations. He was the long-time owner of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team. In 1992 the Angels players retired uniform number 26, symbolic of his participation as the club’s 26th player. But in the end, he is best remembered as the “Singing Cowboy.” Though Gene did not necessarily recall his long singing career with complete fondness.
“It occurs to me that music,” he said in his biography, “with the possible exception of riding a bull, is the most uncertain way to make a living I know. In either case, you can get bucked off, thrown, stepped on, trampled- if you get on at all. At best, it’s a short, bumpy ride.” Gene Autry’s ride was anything but short, but it had its share of bumps along the way
Orvon Gene Autry was born September 29th, 1907 on a ranch near the small town of Tioga, Texas, located just north of Dallas. His parents, Delbert and Elnora Ozmont Autry, were of French, Scottish and Irish ancestry. Delbert was a trader of horses and livestock. Gene’s grandfather, William T. Autry was a Baptist preacher and a descendant of some of the earliest settlers in Texas. An Autry died in the siege at the Alamo in March of 1836. In need of additional voices for his church choir, William taught his five year old grandson to sing. His mother encouraged the young boy’s inclination toward music. She took great joy in teaching him traditional hymns and folk songs.
When Gene was still a child, he studied the saxophone, but he chose to explore the guitar, because he could sing along as he played that instrument. At age twelve, after saving up enough money for the purchase, baling and stacking hay on his Uncle Calvin’s farm, Gene bought an $8 guitar from the Sears & Roebuck mail order catalog. With his mother’s help, he quickly learned to play enough chords on the guitar to accompany himself, while singing all the songs he had learned as a boy.
Gene and his guitar quickly became a familiar sight in the area. He performed before any audience he could manage to attract. “By my fifteenth birthday,” he noted in his biography, “I knew my way around whatever stages the town had. I was in all the school plays. I began to earn money in a Tioga café where the nightly collections [from passing the hat] amounted to about fifty cents.” It was Gene’s keen ambition to avoid, at any cost, the prospect of having to make a living as a farmer.
One of those “stages the town had” to which he referred was at his job as a an apprentice telegraph operator at the Tioga railroad depot. It is said that Gene spent his free time on the job entertaining various local passersby and assorted passengers on the MKT railroad. Many passenger trains passed through Tioga through the course of the average day, providing Gene with a constantly fresh supply of potential audience members. It could be said that young Gene was something of a ham.
In 1924, Gene moved north with his family to the tiny rural community of Ravia, Oklahoma, located outside the town of Chelsea, about fifty miles Northeast of Tulsa. Gene soon found a job at the telegraph office at the railroad depot in Chelsea, resuming his practice of singing and playing guitar in his spare moments.
In addition to his prowess as a musical performer, Gene had acquired a reputation at Ravia High School as being a very capable baseball player. In 1926, at age nineteen, he attended a try-out with a farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals. He was offered a contract by the team, for $100 a month. But Gene turned it down. He was already making $150 a month as a telegraph operator.
He was working the swing-shift at the telegraph office in Chelsea one evening in the summer of 1927, singing and playing guitar, as had become his custom, when a patron entered the office. Encouraging him to continue, the stranger listened intently to Gene’s performance, while preparing the message he intended to have sent.
After Gene had concluded his impromptu recital, the customer commented that with some hard work he might have a future on the radio; suggesting that Gene should consider pursuing a career as a singer. Gene took the stranger’s words to heart, for he had recognized him the moment he had entered the office and was well aware that the man knew a thing or two about radio. It was Will Rogers!
Less than a year after that, Gene used his railroad pass to travel to New York; auditioning for an artists and repertoire representative for the prestigious RCA-Victor record label. It was determined that Gene’s unique voice was not particularly well suited to popular music. The representative advised that Gene should find material better suited to his style. Gene returned to Oklahoma and soon was making a nightly appearance as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy” on radio station KVOO in Tulsa.
Gene then returned to New York a few months later; and on October 9, 1929, he cut his first record, “My Dreaming of You,” backed with “My Alabama Home,” for Victor. Ironically, just as his first records were being released, his mother, who had been so essential to his early musical education; died at just forty-five years of age.
Victor began to pressure Gene to sign an exclusive contract. Instead, he chose to sign with the smaller label, the American Record Corporation (which did have an affiliation with Columbia records). Arthur Satterly, ARC general manager, had convinced Gene that while he would be just one small light in a constellation of stars at Victor, ARC would consider him their most important act. Gene was duly impressed with Satterly’s candid sincerity and astute business acumen.
In December of 1929, Gene recorded his first six songs for ARC. The music was a stylistic mix of hillbilly, country, blues, and yodeling cowboy ballads. In a brilliant business move, Satterly was able negotiate a deal with Sears & Roebuck to not only offer Gene’s records in their mail order catalog; but to act sponsor for the “Gene Autry Program” radio show.
In 1931 Gene released his first hit record, “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” which he had written with his friend Jimmy Long, one night back in the telegraph office. The song sold thirty thousand copies within a month of its release, half a million copies within a year. American Records celebrated the achievement with the public presentation of a gold-plated copy of the record. ARC awarded Gene a second gold record when sales later broke the one million mark. That began the ongoing tradition of the Gold Record Award.
The hit record also led Gene to a greater presence on radio, as he became a regular performer on the National Barn Dance broadcast from station WLS in Chicago. It was on that show that Gene was launched into stardom. Thanks to the national radio exposure, his record sales soared.
During those early years Gene became associated with several key musicians, among them Fred Rose (later known as “the song doctor,“ who wrote hundreds of songs, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain”) with whom Gene wrote several of his hits, including “Be Honest With Me.”
Another key partner was Carl Cotner, who played fiddle, and several other instruments and became Gene’s music arranger. Cotner transformed Gene’s raw musical ideas into complete, concise band arrangements. In addition, many well-known musicians passed through Gene’s band. Mary Ford (Les Paul’s wife and partner) sang with the band for a time. In 1936 a teenaged Merle Travis was hired to play guitar.
In 1934 Gene was chosen to sing a song in the film In Old Santa Fe, which starred former silent film cowboy star Ken Maynard. Maynard had made an attempt at singing in a prior film. Though he was no vocalist, the plot device of a character singing a song proved popular with audiences. Nat Levine, the producer of In Old Santa Fe, had decided to experiment with the formula by casting a role for his film in which a professional would sing the musical number. Gene was selected for the part. While he appeared in just a single scene, to sing his song and call a brief square dance, that scene was one of the most popular in the movie.
Though he was deemed to be an actor of limited ability and range, Gene’s film career was underway and for the next twenty years it would compete with his music career; though, for many years, the two careers seemed to feed one another. In 1935 Gene scored a million-selling hit with the title song from Tumbling Tumbleweeds, a film vehicle specially created for him; in which he starred with the Sons of the Pioneers (among whose members included one “Dick Weston,” who later was to become Roy Rogers).
Several others of Gene’s movies in the ‘30s and ‘40s, including South Of The Border and Mexicali Rose, bothreleased in 1939, were based upon his million-selling hit records. The basis for the 1940 film Back In The Saddle was Gene’s 1938 gold record “Back In The Saddle Again,” which he co-wrote with his friend Ray Whitley. Again in 1940, Gene had another gold record with “You are My Sunshine,“ from his movie Stardust On The Sage. In 1942, “Be Honest With Me,” which he co-wrote with Fred Rose, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song, from the 1941 film Ridin’ On A Rainbow.
In January of 1940, “Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch” radio show debuted on the CBS broadcast network, becoming a national institution. Beyond his recording and film careers and his radio program, Gene also toured extensively with an elaborate stage show, which featured roping and riding demonstrations, Indian dancers, comedy, music and horse tricks by Champion. His popularity was so great, that in 1941 the little town of Berwyn changed its name to Gene Autry, Oklahoma.
World War II interrupted Gene’s career. He became a flight officer with the Air Transport Command, being sworn in live on his radio show After the war, he resumed his acting and recording careers. Between 1944 and 1951, he released a string of twenty-five successive Top 10 country hits. He also had six Top Ten pop hits, including gold records with the now-classic holiday standards “Here, Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty The Snowman,” “Peter Cottontail” and, in 1949 “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” the first record ever to go platinum. “Rudolph” eventually sold over thirty million copies.
Gene particularly did not care for “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and was extremely wary of recording the song. But his wife, Ina Mae, adored the song. “There was a line in the song,” he said in his biography, “about the other reindeer not letting Rudolph join in any reindeer games, and she was touched by it. She said ‘It reminds me of the Ugly Duckling. The kids will love it’” Even with that vote of confidence however, Gene only reluctantly recorded the song at the very end of a session and in a single take, at that.
Also in 1949, Gene had a hit with “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” a song written by a former forest ranger named Stan Jones, It became both a country and pop music standard, recorded by everyone from Vaughan Monroe to Duane Eddy, the Ventures, Frankie Laine, Johnny Cash and the Blues Brothers, among many others.
In 1950 Gene began a series on the fledgling CBS television network, “The Gene Autry Show.” Over the course of the next six years, he produced ninety one half-hour shows. During the same period, his television production company turned out a half-dozen other series as well. He retired from show business by the end of the decade.
However, his vast wealth and diverse business holdings became even more complex in the ‘60s. Besides owning seventeen active oil wells in Texas, a hotel/entertainment complex in Palm Springs, California, and Golden West Broadcasters, a chain of radio and television stations, he became the owner of the California Angels baseball team. His passion for baseball had remained undiminished since his tryout with the Cardinals farm club forty years earlier.
In the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s, Gene slowly sold off his vast business holdings, leaving him a billionaire. In 1991 he sold the last ten acres of his Melody Ranch film set, which had been the location for the shooting of innumerable westerns over the years, including High Noon. The Melody Ranch being developed as an historical site.
On October 2nd, 1998, just after his 91st birthday , Gene Autry died, after a long illness. However, his musical legacy lives on still, at the very roots of contemporary country music. His plaintive, monotonal voice sang to the heart of the American psyche, simple words that bore great emotional impact and depth. As long as there are dusty trails to be ridden and vile villains to be foiled, there will remain a place in the heart of every American for Gene Autry, the singing cowboy.