|Gene Autry circa 1940s|
|Birth name||Orvon Grover Autry|
|Also known as||The Singing Cowboy, Gene Michaels|
|Born||September 29, 1907|
Tioga, Texas, U.S.
|Died||October 2, 1998 (aged 91)|
Studio City, California, U.S.
Orvon Grover “Gene” Autry (September 29, 1907 – October 2, 1998), nicknamed The Singing Cowboy, was an American singer, songwriter, actor, musician and rodeo performer who gained fame largely by singing in a crooning style on radio, in films, and on television for more than three decades beginning in the early 1930s. Autry was the owner of a television station, several radio stations in Southern California, and the Los Angeles/California/Anaheim Angels Major League Baseball team from 1961 to 1997.
From 1934 to 1953, Autry appeared in 93 films, and between 1950 and 1956 hosted The Gene Autry Show television series. During the 1930s and 1940s, he personified the straight-shooting hero—honest, brave, and true—and profoundly touched the lives of millions of Americans. Autry was also one of the most important pioneering figures in the history of country music, considered the second major influential artist of the genre’s development after Jimmie Rodgers. His singing cowboy films were the first vehicle to carry country music to a national audience. In addition to his signature song, “Back in the Saddle Again“, and his hit “At Mail Call Today“, Autry is still remembered for his Christmas holiday songs, most especially his biggest hit “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as well as “Frosty the Snowman“, “Here Comes Santa Claus“, and “Up on the House Top“.
Autry is a member of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and is the only person to be awarded stars in all five categories on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for film, television, music, radio, and live performance. The town of Gene Autry, Oklahoma, was named in his honor, as was the Gene Autry precinct in Mesa, Arizona.
- 1Life and career
- 2Personal life
- 6See also
- 7Further reading
- 9External links
Life and career
Orvon Grover Autry was born September 29, 1907, near Tioga in Grayson County in north Texas, the grandson of a Methodist preacher. His parents, Delbert Autry and Elnora Ozment, moved in the 1920s to Ravia in Johnston County in southern Oklahoma. He worked on his father’s ranch while at school. After leaving high school in 1925, Autry worked as a telegrapher for the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway. His talent at singing and playing guitar led to performing at local dances.
With Smiley Burnette, 1934
While working as a telegraph operator in Chelsea, Oklahoma, Autry would sing and accompany himself on the guitar to pass the lonely hours, especially when he had the midnight shift. This later got him fired. One night, he was encouraged to sing professionally by a customer, the famous humorist Will Rogers, who had heard him singing.
As soon as he could save money to travel, he went to New York. In the autumn of 1928 he auditioned for the Victor Talking Machine Company, shortly before purchase by David Sarnoff’s Radio Corporation of America (RCA). According to Nathaniel Shilkret, director of Light Music for Victor at the time, Autry asked to speak to Shilkret after finding that he had been turned down. Shilkret explained to Autry that he was turned down not because of his voice, but because Victor had just made contracts with two similar singers. Autry left with a letter of introduction from Shilkret and the advice to sing on radio to gain experience and to come back in a year or two. In 1928, Autry was singing on Tulsa radio station KVOO (now KFAQ) as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy”. The Victor archives show an October 9, 1929, entry stating that the vocal duet of Jimmie Long and Gene Autry with two Hawaiian guitars, directed by L. L. Watson, recorded “My Dreaming of You” (Matrix 56761) and “My Alabama” (Matrix 56762).
Autry signed a recording deal with Columbia Records in 1929. He worked in Chicago on the WLS-AM radio show National Barn Dance for four years, and with his own show, where he met singer-songwriter Smiley Burnette. In his early recording career, Autry covered various genres, including a labor song, “The Death of Mother Jones“, in 1931.Gene Autry in 1942
Autry also recorded many “hillbilly“-style records in 1930 and 1931 in New York City, which were certainly different in style and content from his later recordings. These were much closer in style to the Prairie Ramblers or Dick Justice, and included the “Do Right, Daddy Blues” and “Black Bottom Blues”, both similar to “Deep Elem Blues”. These late Prohibition-era songs deal with bootlegging, corrupt police, and women whose occupation was certainly vice. These recordings are generally not heard today, but are available on European import labels, such as JSP Records. His first hit was in 1932 with “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine“, a duet with fellow railroad man Jimmy Long that Autry and Long co-wrote.
Autry also sang the classic Ray Whitley hit “Back in the Saddle Again“, as well as many Christmas holiday songs, including “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town“, his own composition “Here Comes Santa Claus“, “Frosty the Snowman“, and his biggest hit, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer“. He wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus” after being the Grand Marshal of the 1946 Santa Claus Lane Parade (Now the Hollywood Christmas Parade). He heard all of the spectators watching the parade saying, “Here comes Santa Claus!” virtually handing him the title for his song. He recorded his version of the song in 1947 and it became an instant classic.
Autry was the original owner of Challenge Records. The label’s biggest hit was “Tequila” by The Champs in 1958, which started the rock-and-roll instrumental craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He sold the label soon after, but the maroon (later green) label has the “GA” in a shield above the label name.
Autry made 640 recordings, including more than 300 songs written or co-written by himself. His records sold more than 100 million copies and he has more than a dozen gold and platinum records, including the first record ever certified gold.
Gene Autry in Oh, Susanna!, 1936
Autry and Burnette were discovered by film producer Nat Levine in 1934. Together, Autry and Burnette made their film debut for Mascot Pictures Corp. in In Old Santa Fe as part of a singing cowboy quartet; he was then given the starring role by Levine in 1935 in the 12-part serial The Phantom Empire. Shortly thereafter, Mascot was absorbed by the newly formed Republic Pictures Corp. and Autry went along to make a further 44 films up to 1940, all B Westerns in which he played under his own name, rode his horse, Champion, had Burnette as his regular sidekick, and had many opportunities to sing in each film. Pat Buttram was picked by Gene Autry, recently returned from his World War II service in the United States Army Air Forces, to work with him. Buttram would co-star with Gene Autry in more than 40 films and in over 100 episodes of Autry’s television showGene Autry in The Gene Autry Show episode “The Black Rider”, 1950
In the Motion Picture Herald Top Ten Money-Making Western Stars poll, Autry was listed every year from the first poll in 1936 to 1942 and 1946 to 1954 (he was serving in the AAF 1943–45), holding first place 1937 to 1942, and second place (after Roy Rogers) 1947 to 1954, when the poll ceased. He appeared in the similar BoxOffice poll from 1936 to 1955, holding first place from 1936 to 1942 and second place (after Rogers) from 1943 to 1952. While these two polls are really an indication only of the popularity of series stars, Autry also appeared in the Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll of all films from 1940 to 1942, His Gene Autry Flying “A” Ranch Rodeo show debuted in 1940.
Gene Autry was the first of the singing cowboys in films, but was succeeded as the top star by Roy Rogers while Autry served in the AAF during World War II. Part of his military service included his broadcast of a radio show for one year; it involved music and true stories. Several decades ago on an early afternoon show featuring Republic westerns, one of Gene’s sidekicks said that when Gene told Republic Pictures of his intentions to join the military during World War II, Republic threatened to promote Roy Rogers as King of the Cowboys in Gene’s absence, which it did. (See also www.everlasting-star.net). Gene briefly returned to Republic after the war to finish out his contract. The contract had been suspended for the duration of his military service, and he had tried to have it declared void after his discharge. Republic did then publicize him as King of the Singing Cowboys. He appeared in 1951 in the film Texans Never Cry, with a role for newcomer Mary Castle. After 1951, Autry formed his own production company to make Westerns under his own control, which continued the 1947 distribution agreement with Columbia Pictures.
Autry purchased the 110-acre Monogram Movie Ranch in 1953, in Placerita Canyon near Newhall, California, in the northern San Gabriel Mountains foothills. He renamed it the Melody Ranch after his movie Melody Ranch. Autry then sold 98 acres of the property, most of the original ranch. The Western town, adobes, and ranch cabin sets and open land for location shooting were retained as a movie ranch on 12 acres. A decade after he purchased Melody Ranch, a brushfire swept through in August 1962, destroying most of the original standing sets. However, the devastated landscape did prove useful for productions such as Combat!. A complete adobe ranch survived at the northeast section of the ranch.
In 1990, after his favorite horse Champion Three, which lived in retirement there, died, Autry put the remaining 12-acre ranch up for sale. It is now known as the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio and Melody Ranch Studios on 22 acres. The ranch has Melody Ranch Museum open year-round; and one weekend a year, the entire ranch is open to the public during the Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival, another lega