Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Country Music Hall of Fame member Tex Ritter bridged the history of recorded country music from the singing cowboy era of the 1930s to his days as one of the genre’s elder statesmen in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was a regularly featured performer on the Grand Ole Opry. Ritter was able to parlay a rich baritone voice and his love of traditional cowboy songs into a nearly 50-year career as a recording and performing artist, acting and singing in more than 80 films, his own television series, and several radio programs. His film career as a singing cowboy is rivaled only by the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
Maurice Woodward Ritter was born on January 12, 1905, the youngest of six children born to James Everett and Elizabeth Matthews Ritter, ranchers in Murvaul, Texas. His family later moved to Nederland, Texas, ten miles from Beaumont, where he studied voice, trumpet, and guitar as a teenager. He graduated with honors from a Beaumont, Texas, high school in 1922, and enrolled at the University of Texas, in Austin. Intending to study law, Ritter instead met music historians J. Frank Dobie, Oscar J. Fox, and John Lomax, who helped expand his knowledge of cowboy songs and western folklore. He joined the school’s glee club, and, in 1928, hosted a half-hour Saturday evening program on Houston, Texas, radio station KPRC, where he sang cowboy songs.
That same year he won a position in the chorus of the Broadway play The New Moon in New York City. He toured with the play and briefly attempted to finish his law degree at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He abandoned this attempt, however, when it became clear he could not keep up with his studies and continue touring with the play. In 1930 he won the role of Cord Elam in the Broadway play Green Grow the Lilacs, which debuted on January 26, 1931. The play, which served as the basis for the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, featured Ritter as the guitar-playing cowboy who sang “Git Along, Little Dogies.” His performance impressed Art Satherley of the American Record Company, who recorded four songs with Ritter in 1932 and 1933, including “The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball” and “Rye Whiskey,” the latter becoming one of Ritter’s signature songs.
In addition to appearing in two more Broadway plays, The Roundup in 1932 and The Mother Lode in 1934, he also performed on the radio programs The Lone Star Ranger, Cowboy Tom’s Roundup, Death Valley Days, Tex Ritter’s Camp Fire, and appeared as emcee and featured singer on Barn Dance. In 1935 he signed a recording contract with Decca Records, eventually releasing 30 songs on the label, beginning with the English ballad “Sam Hall.” Other songs recorded for Decca include his showpiece from Green Grow the Lilacs, “Git Along, Little Dogies,” as well as “Lady Killin’ Cowboy,” “Bill the Bar Fly,” “My Brown-Eyed Texas Rose,” “(Take Me Back to My) Boots and Saddles,” “The Hills of Old Wyomin’” and “We’ll Rest at the End
Born Maurice Woodward Ritter on January 12, 1905, in Murvaul, TX; died on January 2, 1974, in Nashville, TN; wife: Dorothy Fay Southworth (an actress); children: John, Tom.
Appeared on Broadway in Green Grow the Lilacs, 1931; recorded several songs for the American Record Company, including “The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball and “Rye Whiskey,” 1932; performed as regular cast member on New York City WINS radio program Cowboy Tom’s Roundup, 1934; signed recording contract with Decca Records, 1935; starred in first singing-cowboy film, Song of the Gringo, for Grand National Pictures, 1936; signed recording contract with Johnny Mercer’s Capitol label, 1944; song “I’m Wastin’ My Tears on You,” hit number one on the country charts, 1944; hosted radio and, later, television program, Town Hall Party, 1953-60; president, Country Radio Association, 1964-65; conducted unsuccessful bid for United States Senate, 1970; included in Life magazine’s list of “100 Most Important People in History of Country [Music],” 1994.
Awards: Induction, Country Music Hall of Fame, 1964; Country Music Association (CMA), Founding President’s Award, 1971.
of the Trail.” The fascination with all things western also provided Ritter with the opportunity to conduct lecture tours on the East Coast.
The remainder of Ritter’s Decca singles were taken mostly from his burgeoning career as a singing cowboy, which began in 1936. Edward Finney of Grand National Pictures convinced Ritter to relocated to Hollywood, California, where he made more than 70 singing-cowboy films. Many of the songs he recorded for Decca during this period, including “High, Wide and Handsome,” “Out on the Lone Prairie,” “I’m a Natural Born Cowboy,” “Ride, Ride, Ride,” were released prior to their appearance in such films as Song of the Gringo, Arizona Days, Hittin’ the Trail, and Mystery of the Hooded Horseman.
In 1942 Ritter signed with songwriter, arranger, and composer Johnny Mercer’s fledgling Capitol Records label, with whom he experienced tremendous success with a rerecording of “Rye Whiskey.” He stayed with Capitol for the rest of his life, scoring hits with such songs as “I’m Wastin’ My Tears on You,” “Jealous Heart,” “You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often,” “When You Leave Don’t Slam the Door,” and “You Will Have to Pay.” In 1952 he performed the Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” on the soundtrack for the Fred Zinnemann-directed film High Noon, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The song won an Academy Award for Best Song in 1952 and became one of Ritter’s most-requested songs. Ritter was one of the first to record theme albums, releasing collections of country songs, patriotic songs, and religious hymns. In 1961 he recorded another big hit, “I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven.” Shortly before his death in 1974 Ritter provided the voice-over for the Gordon Sinclair single, “The Americans (A Canadian’s Opinion),” which was released several days after his death.
Ritter’s recording career, however, was significantly less successful than his film, radio, and television career. For seven years, Ritter was ranked among the top ten money-making stars in Hollywood. In all, he made 78 films between 1936 and 1948 for such studios as Columbia, Monogram, and Universal, after which he made appearances in such films as the 1966 Waylon Jennings’s film, Nashville Rebel. After 1948 he focused on his hosting duties for the radio and television program Town Hall Party, appearing on the Grand Ole Opry Saturday evening presentations, and personal appearances throughout the United States.
In 1941, Ritter married Dorothy Fay Southworth, an actress he met while filming Song of the Buckaroo. They had two sons, Tom and John (the latter became an actor on the television series The Waltons and Three’s Company, and the films Sling Blade and Skin Deep). Ritter became a founding member of the Country Music Association in the early 1960s and served as the group’s president in 1964 and 1965. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1964, where a plaque in his honor reads: “One of America’s most illustrious and versatile stars of radio, television, records, motion pictures, and Broadway stage. Untiring pioneer and champion of the country music industry, his devotion to his God, his family, and his country is a continuing inspiration to his countless friends throughout the world.” In 1970 Ritter unsuccessfully campaigned for a seat in the United States Senate. He died of a heart attack in Nashville on January 2, 1974.
Blood on the Saddle, Capitol, 1960.
Border Affair, Capitol, 1963.
Friendly Voice, Capitol, 1965.
Hillbilly Heaven, Capitol, 1965.
Just Beyond the Moon, Capitol, 1967.
Tex Ritter: An American Legend (compilation), Capitol, 1973.
Tex Ritter: Greatest Hits (compilation), Curb, 1990.
Tex Ritter: The Country Music Hall of Fame 1964 (compilation), MCA, 1991.
Capitol Collector’s Series (compilation), Capitol, 1992.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 9: 1971-1975, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994.
Emery, Ralph, 50 Years Down a Country Road, HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.
Hemphill, Paul, The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music, Simon & Schuster, 1970.
Kingsbury, Paul, editor, The Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, editors, Country Music: The Encyclopedia, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997.
Wolff, Kurt, Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 2000.
Additional information was obtained from the liner notes of Tex Ritter: The Country Music Hall of Fame 1964 and Tex Ritter: Greatest Hits.