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Autry, Gene

Gene Autry

Singer, guitarist, actor

The Right Man at the Right Time

Hollywood: The Phantom Empire

The Singing Cowboy and His Music

The Sunset of the B Western

Selected discography

Sources

The life of Gene Autry reads like a chapter from the American Dream. Rising from classically obscure roots on a Texas ranch, Autry became the personification of The Singing Cowboy as well as one of the most financially successful entertainers of this century. In addition to being the Number One country music star of the 1930s, Autry numbered among the Top Ten popular actors from 1940 to 1942, eclipsing film legends Tyrone Power, James Cagney, Judy Garland, and Bette Davis in box-office appeal.

During his career, Autry sold more than 50 million recordings1949s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sold 25 million copies alone. In addition, Autry authored over 250 songs, including Tears on My Pillow, the 1939 classic that he co-wrote with Ray Whitley, Back in the Saddle, Buttons and Bows, and the Christmas classic Here Comes Santa Claus. While remaining relatively unknown in larger cities, Autry gained phenomenal popularity in hundreds of small towns throughout the West and Southwest.

His good looks, singing ability, and charisma helped to popularize the Western elements in country music, lending romance and dignity to a musical genre that had once only identified with Appalachian hillbillies. As a star, Autry took seriously his influence upon the legions of young boys who formed Gene Autry clubs and strove to live according to Genes Cowboys Code of the Western hero.

Autry was born on a ranch outside of Tioga, Texas, but moved to Ravia, Oklahoma, where he spent the greater part of his childhood. In addition to the hard work of ranch life, music played a significant role in his upbringing: Autry was taught to sing at age five so he could join the choir of his grandfathers Baptist church. Hismother supplemented her sons vocal ability with guitar lessons.

The Right Man at the Right Time

Although Autry dreamed of becoming a baseball player, he discovered that his singing could earn him money. As a teenager, he toured for three months as a ballad singer with the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show. But at 15, the hardworking and pragmatic Autry put his musical talent aside to work at the railroad telegraph station in nearby Chelsea, Oklahoma, to help support his family.

Autry passed long hours working the graveyard shift at the small telegraph office by singing and playing guitar. He strummed familiar cowboy tunes and worked at emulating the sounds of his musical hero, Jimmie Rodgers. Known popularly as The Singing Brakeman,

For the Record

Born Orvon Gene Autry, September 29, 1907, in Tioga, TX; son of Delbert (a livestock dealer) and Elnora (Ozment) Autry; married Ina Mae Spivey, 1932 (died, 1980); married Jacqueline Ellam, 1981.

Worked as a freight handler and roustabout, St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad, Chelsea, OK, 1922, and became telegrapher, 1925; sang on local radio show, beginning in 1928; signed with Victor Records, 1929; signed with American Record Corp. and performed on WLS Barndance, beginning in 1931; first film appearance, 1934; signed with Republic Studios, 1935; signed with Columbia Pictures, 1947; formed Gene Autry Productions, 1947; formed Flying A Productions (television production company), 1950; began as organizer and became co-owner, California Angels (formerly Los Angeles Angels) baseball team, 1960; opened Gene Autry Heritage Museum, Los Angeles, CA, 1988. Film appearances include In Ole Santa Fe, 1934; The Phantom Empire, Melody Trail, Sagebrush Troubadour, and Singing Vagabond, all 1935; Boots and Saddles, 1937; Shooting High, Back in the Saddle, and Melody Ranch, all 1941; The Last Roundup, 1947; and Last of the Pony Riders, 1953. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1942-45.

Awards: Inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, Country Music Association, 1969; inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, National Association of Broadcasters, 1977; D. W. Griffith Career Award, 1991; Lifetime Achievement Award, Songwriters Hall Of Fame, 1991; inducted into Broadcast and Cable Hall of Fame, 1993; Horatio Alger Award, Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.

Addresses: Office Golden West Broadcasters, 5858 West Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, CA 90028; P.O. Box 710, Los Angeles, CA 90078.

Rodgerss famous yodeling style was itself the result of long hours spent in a railroad telegraph office imitating the plaintive moan of a train whistle.

As it so often happens in music legend, chance sends an influential stranger in the direction of an unknown but talented young person. One night in 1926, a traveler stopped in Chelsea to send a wire. The man who walked into the St. Louis & Frisco telegraph office was the famous American folk humorist Will Rogers. Rogers sat down and listened to the telegraph operator, who, unaware of a customer, was immersed in a song. After Autry strummed his final chord, Rogers stepped forward and complimented the young man, encouraging him to go and try his luck in New York City.

Rogerss praise didnt convince Autry to jump aboard the first train headed East. Leaving a secure job during hard economic times would be foolish. But encouragement from a man of Rogerss stature made Autry seriously consider a musical career. About a year after Rogers paid his visit, Autry used a free rail pass to board a train for New York.

In the city, Autry was fortunate to link up with Johnny and Frankie Marvin, two fellow Oklahomans who had met with success in radio and recordings. After listening to the young singer, they offered encouragement but recommended that he get more performing experience. Autry returned to Oklahoma full of confidence that he could be a success. He got a job as Oklahomas Yodeling Cowboy on a Tulsa radio station and wrote several songs with his boss, train-dispatcher Jimmie Long. One of these, That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine, gained Autry a write-up in the local paper and a good amount of regional exposure. A1935 recording of the tune would eventually become Autrys first gold record.

Hollywood: The Phantom Empire

With six months of experience on Oklahoma radio behind him, Autry returned to New York where the Marvin boys landed him a recording contract with Victor in the fall of 1929. His ability to imitate the popular Jimmie Rodgers style sparked the interest of several other record companies: Autry would record with such labels as Grey Gull, Gennett, and Velvet Tone during his time in New York.

After two years of mimicking Rodgers, Autry was eager to branch out into his own singing style. He signed on with the American Record Corporation in 1931 and joined WLS Radios National Bam Dance, at that time inarguably the most popular country radio show in the nation. Mail-order giant Sears, Roebuck & Company, the owner of WLS (the call-letters stood for Worlds Largest Store), wasted no time in marketing Autrys popularity. Gene Autry Special Round-Up guitars were featured in the pages of the Sears catalog along with Gene Autry songbooks. An entire section was devoted to Gene Autry recordings.

WLS even gave Autry his own radio show, Conqueror Record Time, to promote Autrys recordings on the Sears-owned Conqueror record label. Despite the Depression, by 1934, Oklahomas Singing Cowboy was one of the most well-known recording artists in America.

During the Depression, Hollywoods film industry became a shield against the economic worries of many Americans. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced amid opulent settings in lighthearted romantic comedies, Tarzan swung across many a hometown movie screen, and stars such as Errol Flynn and the beautiful Olivia de Havilland drew willing audiences into the past in escapist costume dramas.

Likewise, Western films provided a means of escape. As Hollywood looked for new ways to promote its steady crop of willing cowboy actors, the horse opera was born. The first Western with musical highlights was a 1930 film starring Ken Maynard. Autry was persuaded to try his hand at acting four years later when his appearance beside Maynard in Republic Studios In Ole Santa Fe engaged film audiences. The Singing Cowboy was suddenly more than just a pleasant voicenow he had a face.

Autrys popularity prompted Republic to cast him in a 13-chapter Western/sci-fi serial called The Phantom Empire. This quirky cliffhanger was such a success with audiences that by 1935 Autry was hard at work on Tumblin Tumbleweeds, the first of many two-reelers that would make his name a household word. Less than a month later, Autrys name appeared at theaters around the country in association with another film, Melody Trail, in which his horse, Champion, was introduced to eager film audiences.

Following a tried-and-true formula, Autrys films were set on a Western landscape replete with automobiles, airplanes, and avaricious businessmen, the modern-day version of cattle-rustlers. Each hour-long film would allow its star the opportunity to break into song an average of six times. As the Number One western box-office star from 1937 into the 1940s, Autry helped define the B Western. Helped only by his humorous sidekick and trusty horse, Autry would save the oppressed from the evil menace while always following the Cowboys Code: Never shoot first, never hit a man smaller than yourself, and never go back on your word.

Altogether, Autry would star in over 90 films, as well as in Melody Ranch, a radio series whose theme song, Back in the Saddle, would be heard by American families for over 17 years. While Roy Rogers would finally rise to become Americas favorite Western star in 1947, Autry would remain a close second in popularity until his semi-retirement from show business in 1957 at the age of 50.

The Singing Cowboy and His Music

Musically, Autrys style began as a derivative of that of Jimmie Rodgers. Indeed, Rodgers was a great influence on many of the country artists of the 1920s and 1930sJimmie Davis, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, and Merle Haggard were only some of the musicians inspired by Rodgerss blue yodels and sentimental balladry. The sparse backup of Autrys early worksThe Yellow Rose of Texas, with harmony by Jimmie Long, and Tumblin Tumbleweeds, with vocal backup by Long and movie sidekick Smiley Burnettegave way to more Western swing-based arrangements when Gene hired Indiana jazz violinist Carl Cotner in 1937.

Cotner was responsible for much of the Autry sound from the late 1930s into the 1940s with arrangements using violins, steel guitar, and an occasional horn. In his 1979 autobiography, Back in the Saddle Again, Autry described a typical working session. I would stop in the middle of a song and say, Right there, thats the place. We need ... Carl, you know what it is. We ought to put it in right there. And Carl wouldnt know. He would fiddle around until he stumbled onto what I wanted ... until my ear told me it was right. In time, noted Autry, after years of working closely, and Carl having to read my mind, he developed an instinct for it.

As Bill C. Malone commented in Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers, Autry had a repertory, like most country entertainers of the era, that lacked clear definition. His interest in pop music motivated him to record a number of popular songs originally recorded by top bandleaders of the day. Amid hits such as Hillbilly Wedding in June and Empty Cot in the Bunk House appeared a rendition of Kay Kysers Jingle, Jangle, Jingle; Blueberry Hill, first recorded by Glen Miller, became a Gene Autry hit in 1940.

The pop approach of the Autry-Cotner team made Autry one of the first crossover country stars and invited country music in the front door of middle-class homes from Boisie to Boston. His popularization of country music provided a leg-up for the many talented musicians who would perform with him over the years. Unlike Cotner, many of these, including Burnette, Johnny Bond, Merle Travis, Whitey Ford, Jimmy Wakely, Pat Buttram, and the Cass County Boys, came from so-called hillbilly backgrounds.

Even with Autrys astounding popularity, as Douglas Green noted in Journal of Country Music, Autrys career has been a paradoxical one. The stars desire to look ahead has been accompanied by a lack of desire to reflect upon his early years. Gene Autrys career is surely one of the half dozen most important in country music, wrote Green, yet we really know little about it.... We know nothing of the inspiration that first fired his interest in music, the music which directed his talent... or the forces which shaped his music. In public perception, Autry the legend has obscured Autry the man.

The Sunset of the B Western

After a musical career spanning over 40 years, Autry went on to become involved in other areas of the entertainment industry. A savvy investor since purchasing his first radio station prior to joining the Air Force during World War II, Autry had the foresight to see potential in the new medium of television. At one point, Autry was the owner of over ten radio and television stations, as well as president of Flying A Productions, a company that produced such television series as Range Rider and The Adventures of Champion. In sports circles, much of Autrys fame as a singing cowboy has been overshadowed by his high profile as co-organizer and owner of the California Angels baseball team.

It occurs to me that music, with the possible exception of riding a bull, is the most uncertain way to make a living I know, Autry stated in his autobiography. In either case, you can get bucked off, thrown, stepped on, trampledif you get on at all. At best, it is a short and bumpy ride. It isnt easy to explain why you keep coming back, but you do. Autrys willingness to work hard and take risks brought him much farther than that short and bumpy ride. And the personality he projected on both screen and radiothe openness and honesty he epitomizedmade Autry the embodiment of The Singing Cowboy, a cultural icon that sustained Americans, young and old alike, through the lean years of the Depression and beyond.

Selected discography

Greatest Hits (contains You Are My Sunshine, Lonely River, and Blues Stay Away from Me), Columbia, 1961.
Golden Hits, RCA Victor, 1962.
Great Hits, Harmony, 1965.
The Essential Gene Autry (contains The Yellow Rose of Texas and Back in the Saddle Again), Columbia, 1992.

Sources

Books

Autry, Gene, with Mickey Herskowitz, Back in the Saddle Again, Doubleday, 1978.

Biracree, Tom, The Country Music Almanac, Prentice Hall, 1993.

Malone, Bill C, Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music, University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Miller, LeeO., Great Cowboy Stars of Movies and Television, Arlington House, 1979.

Periodicals

Country America, March 1994.

Country Song Roundup, February 1994.

Journal of Country Music, vol. 7, no. 2; vol. 7, no. 3.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from Charles Wolfes liner notes to the Columbia reissue The Essential Gene Autry, 1933-1946, February 1992.

Pamela Shelton

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Autry, Gene

Gene Autry

Singer, guitar, actor

Advice from a Legend

A New Frontier

A Cowboy Broadened His Horizons

Loss of a Legend

Selected discography

Sources

The original singing cowboy, Gene Autry lived by a cowboy creed to fight fair, tell the truth, keep your word, and always help those in trouble. He lived by this creed both in life and on screen. Hall of Fame singer, broadcaster, film star, broadcast tycoon, and founder of the California Angels baseball team, Autry is the only entertainer with five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Famefor radio, records, movies, television and live performance. His endeavors, like his life, spanned the twentieth century as his career moved from radio to recording to movies to television, paralleling the discovery of each.

Autry generated more than 90 films and 90 television episodes, made 635 recordings, and sold more than 100 million records before his death in 1998. Among his most notable professional accomplishments were the creation of the popular Melody Ranch radio program, with its celebrated theme song, Back in the Saddle Again and his best-selling recording of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Sales of more than 50 million copies of the 1949 Christmas single propelled the song to the rank of biggest-selling single in history until Elton John toppled it in 1997 with Candle in the Wind, his tribute to Princess Diana. Autrys happy-go-lucky nature was as much a trademark as his horse Champion and his white cowboy hat. But under the agreeable personality was an intense ambition, intelligence, and self-confidence that took him to a level of fame and fortune beyond his dreams.

Orvon Gene Autry was born on September 29, 1907, near Tioga, Texas, to Delbert and Elnora Autry. The family moved to Ravia, Oklahoma, where his father, a livestock dealer, exposed him to the traditions of the West and the life of a cowboy. He developed a love for music at age 5 when he sang in his grandfathers Baptist church choir and his mother taught him to play the guitar. By the age of 12 Autry purchased a mail-order guitar from Sears Roebucks catalog. Three years later he was singing at local cafes where he earned 50 cents a night.

Advice from a Legend

Autrys first love may have been music, but he also developed a passion for baseball. He left school to pursue a career in the telegram business while playing as an American Legion shortstop. He was once offered a minor-league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, but he couldnt afford to take a 50 percent pay cut from his $100-a-month job as a telegraph operator on a St. Louis & San Francisco railroad line. So he remained in Chelsea, Oklahoma, sending telegrams and spending his spare time singing and plucking his guitar.

For the Record

Born Orvon Gene Autry, September 29, 1907 in Tioga, TX (died October 2, 1998); son of Delbert (a livestock dealer) and Elnora (Ozment) Autry; married Ina Mae Spivey, 1932 (died, 1980); married Jacqueline Ellam, 1981.

Began playing the guitar and singing in a choir at age five; worked as a freight handler and roustabout, St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad, Chealsea, OK, 1922; sang on local radio show, beginning in 1928; signed with Victor Records, 1929; signed with American Record Corp. and performed on WLS Barndance, beginning in 1931; first film appearance, 1934; signed with Republic Studios, 1935; signed with Columbia Pictures, 1947; formed Gene Autry Productions, 1947; formed television production company Flying A. Productions, 1950; became owner of California Angels baseball team, 1960; opened Gene Autry Heritage Museum, Los Angeles, CA, 1988. Film appearances include In Ole Santa Fe, 1934; The Phantom Empire, Melody Trail, Sagebrush Troubadour, Tumblin Tumbleweeds, and Singing Vagabond, all 1935; Boots and Saddles, 1937; Shooting High, Back in the Saddle, and Melody Ranch, all 1941; The Last Roundup, 1947; and Last of the Pony Riders, 1953. Military service: U.S. Army Air Corps, 1942-45.

Awards: Inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, Country Music Association, 1969; inducted into Broadcasting Hall of Fame, National Association of Broadcasters, 1977; D.W. Griffith Career Award, 1991; Lifetime Achievement Award, Songwriters Guild, 1991; inducted into Broadcast and Cable Hall of Fame, 1993; Horatio Alger Award, Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans; Hubert H. Humphrey Humanitarian Award; inducted into Texas Country Music Hall of Fame, 1998.

According to legend, Will Rogers heard a 17-year-old Autry singing at the telegraph office and encouraged the young man to pursue a career in radio. That tip would change Autrys life forever, leading him to the top of the recording industry and onto the silver screen. He started out singing ballads in blackface make-up for 15 dollars a week with the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine show, but soon traveled to New York where he was advised by Victor recording officials to get some local experience and learn how to sing yodel songs. Autry went home and quickly won his own series on a Tulsa radio station as the Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy, emulating the sounds of his musical hero Jimmie Rodgers. Autry returned to New York in 1928 and recorded with such labels as Grey Gull, Gennett, and Velvet Tone.

Autry had a knack for predicting how the public wanted to be entertained. He is considered the creator of the Singing Cowboy genre, beginning with That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine, a record that went gold for selling a half-million copies. He made 635 records, with more than a dozen receiving Gold and Platinum status. His childrens hits included Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Here Comes Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, and Peter Cottontail.

When the Singing Cowboy started making motion pictures in 1934, he spent eight consecutive years as Hollywoods top box-office Western star. His first starring role was in the 1935 film, Tumblin Tumbleweeds. He spent nearly three decades starring in more than 90 movies glorifying cowboy action, comedy and the wide-open spaces of the American West. But the focus of his films was on the music. Autrys appeal didnt subside until he left Hollywood in 1942 to join World War II as a member of the Army Air Corps. He was given the rank of Technical Sergeant and was promptly given his own radio show after being assigned to Special Services as an entertainer. However, Autry insisted on being taught to fly and was appointed Flight Officer and transferred to Air Transport Command.

A New Frontier

Autry was the first motion picture star to exploit the potential of television, the new entertainment frontier. Autry would later admit that his clean-cut image cost him a more varied career in movies, which might explain why he was so willing to help pioneer a new medium such as TV. He formed his own production company to make half-hour Western-themed series for television and began work on his own television series that lasted from 1950 to 1956.

Autry attempted to emulate his on-screen persona, but the man was truer to real life that his movie roles. Nevertheless, he ventured to honor Gene Autrys Cowboy Code. Under the code, a cowboy never shot first, struck a smaller man or took unfair advantage. He always honored his word and never told a lie. He was a good worker, considerate to children and old folks, and respectful of women, parents, and the law. The Angle of horseback image stuck. However, his real-life persona was far from perfect. Autry admitted to a battle with alcohol. Without knowing it, I had grown dependent on liquor to relax, he admitted in his autobiography Back In The Saddle Again. Drinking was a way to celebrate. I was always on the go, fighting another deadline, racing to a studio or a business meeting. The more tired one gets, the easier it is to look for energy in a bottle.

A Cowboy Broadened His Horizons

Autrys career was far from over when he stopped performing in 1956. By 1995, he had built a corporate empire valued at nearly $320 million and was frequently named one of the 400 richest Americans. By the late 1980s, his holdings included four radio stations, the Gene Autry Hotel in Palm Springs, Western Music Publishing Inc., Golden West Melodies Inc., Ridgeway Music Publishing Inc., Melody Ranch Music, and Gene Autry Records Inc. In the early 1950s, Autrys sharp sense for entertainment trends led him into the business of broadcasting. He operated such award-winning stations as KMPC radio and KTLA television in Los Angeles under the banner of Golden West Broadcasters.

As a station owner in search of radio programming, Autry went to the baseball owners meetings in St. Louis in 1960. He had recently lost the broadcast rights to the Dodgers and was looking to sign up one of the American Leagues new expansion teams. He returned home the owner of the Los Angeles Angels, which became the first American League franchise on the West Coast. Autry paid $2.4 million for the team that was reportedly worth $125 million in 1996, when Disney became a managing partner with 25 percent ownership.

Autry and his second wife Jackie opened the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in 1988. An achievement that he cherished deeply, the museum has been praised as one of the finest on Western history. Built with a $54 million donation from the Autry Foundation, it traces the development of the West, from its prehistoric roots to its Gold Rush days, with a nod to the romantic images created by Hollywood cowboys such as Autry and his comic sidekicks. An impressive collection of art and artifacts, it draws thousands of visitors every year.

Loss of a Legend

Autry died at home on October 2, 1998, just three days after his 91st birthday, after a lengthy battle with lymphoma. He had endured a great deal of pain in the year before his death, but he still managed to attend his final Angels game on September 23, when the Angels lost to the Texas Rangers. He had requested that no funeral be held and was buried immediately at Forest Hills Memorial Park in Burbank, California.

Autry is recognized in the entertainment industry for his talent, but more so for the way he transcended expectations along the way, from a Tioga, Texas country music singer to star of films and television, and later as producer of his own films and television programs. He is remembered as a kind, generous man whose greatest charm was that he remained a down-to-earth cowboy despite his success.

Selected discography

Greatest Hits (contains You Are My Sunshine, Lonely River, and Blues Stay Away from Me), Columbia, 1961.

Golden Hits, RCA Victor, 1962.

Great Hits, Harmony, 1965.

The Essential Gene Autry (contains The Yellow Rose of Texas and Back in the Saddle Again), Columbia, 1992.

Sources

Dallas Morning News, October 3, 1998

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, October 3, 1998

Gannett News Service, October 2, 1998

Independent-London, October 5, 1996

Kelly M. Cross

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Autry, Gene

Gene Autry (Orvon Grover Autry), 1907–98, American entertainer and businessman, b. Tioga Springs, Tex. Probably the most successful of the movies' singing cowboys, Autry began singing on the radio in Tulsa, Okla., during the 1920s. He later wrote or cowrote more than 250 songs, among them Back in the Saddle Again (1939) and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948), and made some 600 recordings. He moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s and starred in his first film, Tumbling Tumbleweeds, (of nearly 100) in 1935. Autry, America's top Western star during 1937–43, usually played a singing, guitar-playing hero and rode his famous horse, Champion. After serving in World War II (1942–45), he resumed his film career and starred (1950–56) in a popular television program. Autry invested the fortune he amassed with skill, becoming the owner of many properties, including the California Angels baseball team. His collection of Western art and memorabilia is housed in the Autry National Center, Los Angeles.

See his autobiography (1978); biography by H. George-Warren (2007); D. Rothel, The Gene Autry Book (1988).

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