Gene Autry - Biography
BY J Poet
Gene Autry was one of the most successful cowboy singers and actors of the 40s and 50s. He was a prolific recoding artist and songwriter and made 640 records, including 300 tunes he wrote or co-wrote. He sold more than 100 million records and albums, collected a dozen gold and one platinum record, and cut some of the most enduring cowboy and holiday classics of all time including “Back in the Saddle Again,” “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)”, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the perennial Christmas single, outsold only by Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” He’s the only entertainer to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for Radio, Recording, Motion Pictures, Television, and Live Performance. His movies and recordings made him a wealthy man and after leaving active show business remained involved in the entertainment industry until he died. His many honors include membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, The National Cowboy Hall of Fame, the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, The Songwriters Guild Life Achievement Award and The ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award. Autry died at his home in Studio City in 1998. He was 91.
Autry was born in Texas in 1907, but the family moved to Oklahoma when he was a teenager. Autry got a Sears & Roebuck guitar when he was 12, and learned hymns and folk songs from his mother. By 15 he played guitar and sang at local dances. After high school he worked as a telegraph operator on the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway on the night shift, playing and singing to while away the lonely hours. One night Will Rogers came in to send a telegram and told Autry he was good enough to make records. His confidence boosted, Autry landed a radio show on KVOO in Tulsa in1928, billed as Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy.
In 1929 he made a single for RCA in New York, “My Dreaming of You” b/w “My Alabama Home.” I didn’t do well, but he soon signed with the large indie label ARC, and made six singles for them. “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” co-written with Jimmy Long shot up the charts and won one of the first gold records. The National Barn Dance on Chicago’s WLS signed him and he became a national radio star. His early recordings are collected on The Essential Gene Autry, 1931-1953 (2005 Columbia/Legacy) and Gene Autry: Blues Singer 1929-1931 (1996 Columbia/Legacy.)
Autry put together a touring band that included Merle Travis, before he was a superstar picker and songwriter (“16 Tons”), fiddler Carl Cotner who became the band’s arranger, and back up singer Mary Ford who later married Les Paul and helped pioneer double tracked harmonies.
In 1930 talkies had come in and producers of Western movies were looking for a good-looking, good sounding cowboy. Autry filled the bill. He starred in the sci-fi cowboy serial The Phantom Empire, which led to a contract with Republic Pictures. Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1935) which also featured the Sons of the Pioneers (with a young Roy Rogers) was a huge hit. Between 1935 and 1941, Autry made three movies a year and was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. Every movie also featured Autry singing a couple of tunes and their sales went through the roof. Hits from the films are collected on The Singing Cowboy, Chapter One (1997 Varèse Sarabande), The Singing Cowboy, Chapter Two (1998 Varèse Sarabande), and The Singing Cowboy Collection (2005 Varèse Sarabande.) Gene Autry: That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine (2006 Bear Family) collects every recording he made between 1928 and 1933 on nine CDs.
In 1940, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show premiered on CBS and its theme song “Back in the Saddle Again,” became one of Autry’s mast enduring hits and a cowboy standard. In between he toured constantly, doing two shows a day, seven days a week, for months on end. He was a first performer to sell out Madison Square Garden.
In 1942 Autry enlisted in the Army Air Corps and the army allowed him to broadcast live from the South Pacific, where he was stationed. The Cowboy Is A Patriot (2002 Varèse Sarabande) collects 34 songs from his radio show and a complete show from July 26, 1942. After the fighting stopped, he did USO tours entertaining the troops, before coming home to resume his recording and movie making. In 1950 Television was having a depressing effect on movie ticket sales. Autry’s Flying A Pictures started producing The Gene Autry Show for CBS Television, which became one of the most successful early TV shows, again featuring a couple of songs on each episode. The company also produced The Range Rider, Buffalo Bill Jr. and the early episodes of Death Valley Days.
He also kept making hit records, the biggest being 1949’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which he didn’t want to record, and “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.” Both songs became classics. Autry’s TV show helped keep the sales of his albums high, although he was no longer as popular as he was in the 40s. His TV era songs are included on The Gene Autry Show: The Complete 1950s Television Recordings (2001Varèse Sarabande) a three CD set with 109 songs and the less comprehensive Goin’ Back To Texas: 25 Texas Classics (2001Varèse Sarabande.) His holiday songs are collected on Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer And Other Christmas Classics (2003 Columbia/Legacy)
In the late 50s, Autry stopped performing and attended to his massive business holdings. He bought several radio and TV stations including KMPC and KTLA TV in Los Angeles, owned the California Angels, and had a large music publishing company. In 1988 he opened the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum. Autry died at his home in Studio City in 1998. He was 91.