Autry, Gene (1907-1998)

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Autry, Gene (1907-1998)

Famous as the original "Singing Cowboy," Gene Autry rode the range in the tradition of Tom Mix—clean living, honest, and innocent. He established the singing cowboy stereotype (continued by Roy Rogers, who inherited Autry's sobriquet): that of the heroic horseman who could handle a guitar or a gun with equal aplomb. A star of film, radio, and television, Autry was probably best known for his trademark song, "Back in the Saddle Again," as well as for many more of the over 250 songs he wrote in his lifetime.

Born in Texas, Autry moved to Oklahoma as a teenager, and began working as a telegrapher for the railroad after high school. While with the railroad, he began composing and performing with Jimmy Scott, with whom he co-wrote his first hit, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," which sold half a million copies in 1929 (a record for the period). The same year, he auditioned for the Victor Recording Company in New York City but was told he needed more experience. He returned to Tulsa and began singing on a local radio program, earning the nickname "Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy." Columbia Records signed him to a contract in 1930 and sent him to Chicago to sing on various radio programs, including the Farm and Home Hour and the National Barndance. He recorded a variety of songs during the 1930s, such as "A Gangster's Warning," "My Old Pal of Yesterday," and even the labor song "The Death of Mother Jones."

In 1934, Autry began appearing in films as a "tuneful cow-puncher" and made numerous highly successful pictures with his horse, Champion, before he retired from the film industry in the 1950s. His debut film was In Old Santa Fe, in which he made only a brief singing appearance, but reaction to his performance was favorable and it got him a lead role in the 13-part serial Phantom Empire. His first starring role in a feature film followed with Tumblin' Tumbleweeds (1935), and he became not only Republic Pictures' reigning king of "B" Westerns, but the only Western star to be featured on the list of top ten Hollywood moneymakers between 1938 and 1942. Autry's pictures are notable for the smooth integration of the songs into the plots, helping to move the action along. Some of his films were even built around particular songs, among them Tumblin' Tumbleweeds, The Singing Cowboy (1937), Melody Ranch (1940) and Back in the Saddle (1941).

After serving as a technical sergeant in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Autry returned to Hollywood to make more films. From film, Autry made the transition into both radio and television programming. He hosted the Melody Ranch show on radio (and later on television), and he was involved with numerous successful television series, including The Gene Autry Show (1950-56) and The Adventures of Champion (1955-56). A masterful merchandiser, he developed a lucrative and hugely successful lines of clothes, comic books, children's books, and toys, while at the same time managing and touring with his own rodeo company. In addition to his country songs, Autry wrote numerous other popular songs, including "Frosty the Snowman," "Peter Cottontail," and, most famously, the enduring "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Thanks to his financial success, Autry was able to buy the California Angels baseball team and served as a vice president of the American Baseball League for many years.

Like Tom Mix before him, Autry's public image stressed strong morals and honesty, and fueled the romantic image of the American cowboy. His ten-point "Cowboy Code" featured such sincere advice as "The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage"; "He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas"; "He must neither drink nor smoke"; and "The Cowboy is a patriot." Gene Autry was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame 1969, 29 years before his death at the age of 91.

—Deborah M. Mix

Further Reading:

Autry, Gene. The Essential Gene Autry. Columbia/Legacy Records, 1992.

Autry, Gene, with Mickey Herskowitz. Back in the Saddle Again. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1978.

Rothel, David. The Gene Autry Book. Madison, North Carolina, Empire Publishing, 1988.