Autry, Gene (originally Orvin Gene Autry)
Autry, Gene (originally Orvin Gene Autry)
Autry, Gene (originally Orvin Gene Autry), the first and most famous singing cowboy; b. Tioga Springs, Tex., Sept. 29, 1907; d. Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 2, 1998. Autry transformed the image of the country singer with his introduction of western garb and mannerisms into his stage persona. In the 1930s, he was a star of radio, records, and films; from the end of World War II on, he was primarily a canny businessman who invested in diverse activities from real estate to baseball to oil. Besides performing many venerable cowboy hits, he wrote or co-wrote songs in a sentimental (“That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”), cowboy (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “South of the Border”), and blues style (“I Hang My Head and Cry”), as well as his famous Christmas/children’s songs (“Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and “Peter Cottontail”).
Autry was the son of a Tex. dirt farmer. He began his musical career as a member of the church choir, where his grandfather was the preacher. Like many other rural musicians, he got his first mail-order guitar from Sears in his early teens and began playing at local events. The family moved to Okla. when he was a late teenager, and he found a job with a local railroad line as a telegraph operator. There, he befriended an elder part-time musician, who encouraged him to pursue his career.
Autry began his career as a Jimmie Rodgers imitator; like so many country performers of the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was enamored with Rodgers’s sound, which he shamelessly copied. In 1928, supposedly on the advice of famous radio comedian Will Rogers, he traveled to N.Y. in search of radio work. After making the rounds among the music industry bigwigs, he quickly returned to Okla. and radio work on the local station KVOO, in Tulsa, billed as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy.”
In October 1929, he returned to N.Y. and finally broke into the recording world, albeit for the many budget “dimestore” labels that then existed. By the early 1930s, many of these labels had failed due to the Depression, and were consolidated together into the American Recording Company or ARC label. There, talent scout and producer Art Satherley recorded the young singer. Their first hit collaboration was on a sentimental number called “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” released in 1931. This led to a radio contract with the influential and powerful WLS station out of Chicago, where he would remain through mid-1934.
At WLS, Autry began downplaying his rural-farm upbringing, while emphasizing his (nonexistent) roots as a cowboy, perhaps influenced by the increasing popularity of movie cowboys such as Ken Maynard. In 1934, Autry gained his first movie role in support of Maynard in In Old Santa Fe; in the next year, he starred in his first serial, the unusual Phantom Empire, which featured a bizarre mix of science fiction and cowboy antics! He would go on to appear in almost a hundred horse operas, usually accompanied by his favorite horse, Champion. From 1939–56, he starred on radio in “Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch,” further underscoring his cowboy image.
Autry recorded dozens of western-flavored songs during this period, which became major hits and have entered American folklore as “standards” in the cowboy repertoire. These include the evergreen “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” “Back in the Saddle Again,” and “The Last Roundup.” Autry sang them straight—no matter how clichéd the sentiments or lyrics, he sang ’em like he meant ’em—and his audience loved ’em.
After serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II, Autry returned to civilian life to find himself supplanted in the public imagination by another civilian-turned-cowpoke, Roy Rogers, of recent burger-broiling fame. His last successes came with kid-oriented records, including several winter-time perennials like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snow Man,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Branching out to more moderate-weather holidays, he also cut “(Here Comes) Peter Cottontail.” Besides continuing to make films, Autry became an early TV star, appearing in his popular program for six years beginning in 1950.
Autry pretty much retired from music-making in the mid-1950s to focus on his lucrative business ventures. In 1960, he purchased Los Angeles’s major league baseball team, adding to his real-estate holdings. In 1969, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Autry’s main importance was not his style, which was a typical mix of country mannerisms with the crooning popularized by Bing Crosby. Rather, it was his image, with the complete Western garb that helped spread the myth of the cowboy as the last American pioneer. Country stars, who had previously appeared in overalls to emphasize their rural background, suddenly began appearing in cowboy hats and chaps. The romance of the West combined with the sentimentality of heart-tugging songs made for an unbeatable companion. It’s no surprise that 50 years later country superstar Garth Brooks always appears in a ten- gallon hat.
G. A. at the Rodeo (1958); G. A/s Greatest Hits (1961); Back in the Saddle Again (1968); Country Music Hall of Fame (1970); Columbia Historic Edition (1982); The Essential G. A.: 1933–1946 (1992); A G. A. Christmas (1994); G. A.: Blues Singer, 1929–1931 (1996); Sing Cowboy Sing: The G. A. Collection (1997); The Last Round–Up: 25 Cowboy Classics, 1933–1947 (1998); Always Your Pal, G. A. (1998); Here Comes Santa Claus (1999); Love Songs (1999); 20 Greatest Movie Hits (1999); 20 Golden Cowboy Hits (2000).