Gene Autry Biography

Orvin Gene Autry, 29 September 1907, near Tioga, Texas, USA, d. 2 October 1998, Studio City, California, USA. The eldest of four children of Delbert Autry, a poor tenant farmer, who moved his family many times over the years, before eventually arriving at Ravia, Oklahoma. His grandfather, a Baptist minister, taught him to sing when he was a child so that he could perform in his church choir and at other local events. Autry also learned to ride at an early age and worked the fields with his father. He grew up listening to cowboy songs and received his first guitar at the age of 12 (initially he studied the saxophone but chose the guitar so that he could sing as well). He graduated from school in 1924 and found work as a telegraph operator for the Frisco Railroad in Chelsea, Oklahoma. He used to take his guitar to work and one night his singing was heard by the famous entertainer Will Rogers, who stopped to send a telegram. He suggested that Autry should look for a job in radio. After trying unsuccessfully to find work in New York, he returned to Oklahoma and began to appear on KVOO Tulsa as The Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy. After hearing recordings of Jimmie Rodgers, he became something of a Rodgers clone as he tried to further his career.

In 1929, Autry made his first RCA - Victor Records recordings, ‘My Dreaming Of You’ and ‘My Alabama Home’, on which he was accompanied by Jimmy Long (a fellow telegrapher) and Johnny Marvin and Frankie Marvin. Further recordings followed for ARC Records under the direction of Art Satherley, some being released on various labels for chain store sales. It was because of releases on Conqueror for Sears that Autry found himself given the opportunity to join WLS in Chicago. In 1931, he became a featured artist on the National Barn Dance, as well as having his ownConqueror Record Time. Before long, Gene Autry ‘Roundup’ guitars and songbooks were being sold by Sears. Interestingly, WLS portrayed him as a singing cowboy even though, at this time, few of his songs were of that genre. Between 1931 and 1934, he was a hillbilly singer, who still at times sounded like Rodgers. In fact, most experts later rated him the best of the Rodgers impersonators. He began to include his own songs and such numbers as ‘The Gangster’s Warning’ and ‘My Old Pal Of Yesterday’ became very popular.

Late in 1931, Autry recorded ‘That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine’ as a duet with Jimmy Long, with whom he had co-written the song. The song eventually became Autry’s first million-selling record. By 1934, he was well known as a radio and recording personality. Having for some time been portrayed as a singing cowboy by the publicity departments of his record companies, he now took his first steps to make the publicity come true. He was given a small part in the Ken Maynard filmIn Old Santa Fe, and soon afterwards starred in a strange 12-episode western/science fiction serial calledThe Phantom Empire. In 1935, Republic Pictures signed him to a contract andTumbling Tumbleweeds became his first starring western film. His previous singing cowboy image was now reality. He sang eight songs in the film including the title track, ‘That Silver Haired Daddy’ and ‘Ridin’ Down The Canyon’. Further films followed in quick succession and by 1940 Autry ranked fourth among all Hollywood money-making stars at the box office. In January 1940, Gene Autry’sMelody Ranch radio show, sponsored by the Wrigley Gum Company, first appeared on CBS Records and soon became a national institution, running until 1956. Helped out by such artists as Pat Buttram, Johnny Bond and the Cass County Boys, Autry regularly righted wrongs, sang his hits and as a result of the programme, built himself a new home in the San Fernando Valley called Melody Ranch.

Quite apart from the radio shows and films, Autry toured extensively with his stage show. It featured roping, Indian dancers, comedy, music, fancy riding from Autry, and smart horse tricks by Champion. By 1941, he was respected and famous all over the USA The little town of Berwyn, Oklahoma, even changed its name to Gene Autry, Oklahoma. His songs such as ‘Be Honest With Me’, ‘Back In The Saddle Again’ (which became his signature tune), ‘You’re The Only Star In My Blue Heaven’, ‘Goodbye, Little Darlin’ Goodbye’ (later recorded by Johnny Cash) and many more, became tremendously popular. In 1942, his income took a severe cut when he enlisted in the Air Force, being sworn in live on aMelody Ranch programme. He spent some time working on recruitment but then became a pilot in Air Ferry Command and saw service in the Far East, India and North Africa. During this period, he co-wrote with Fred Rose his classic song ‘At Mail Call Today’. After his release from the services, he resumed his acting and recording career. Between 1944 and 1951, he registered 25 successive Top 10 country hits, including ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ (later recorded by Elvis Presley), ‘Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘Peter Cottontail’ and ‘Frosty The Snow Man’, each of which sold 1 million copies. He also had six US Top 10 pop chart success in the same period. He left Republic in 1947 and formed his own Flying A Productions, which produced his later films for release by Columbia Pictures. When he made his last B-movie western, Last Of The Pony Riders, in 1953, he had 89 feature films to his credit. Contrary to prevailing belief, there never was a feud between Autry and his replacement at Republic, Roy Rogers - it was purely the invention of Republic’s publicity department.

During the 50s, Autry became very successful in business and purchased many radio and television stations. Between 1950 and 1956, he produced 91 episodes ofThe Gene Autry Show for CBS-TV. His company also produced many other television series, includingThe Range Rider, The Adventures Of Champion andAnnie Oakley. His business interest became even more involved during the 60s, when apart from owning various radio and television companies, he became the owner of the California Angels major league baseball team. Melody Ranch reappeared as a television programme in the 60s and ran for seven years on Autry’s KTLA station. It was syndicated to stations across the country and although Autry did not appear as a regular, he did make guest appearances. In 1986, Nashville Network decided to screen his Republic and Columbia B-movie westerns under the title ofMelody Ranch Theatre with Autry himself doing opening and closing announcements. During his long career, Autry had three horses to fill the role of Champion. The original died in 1947. Champion III, who appeared in the Gene Autry television series and also as the star of theAdventures Of Champion television series, died in 1991 at the age of 42. There was also a personal appearance Champion and a pony known as Little Champ. During his career he regularly sported a custom-made C.F. Martin guitar, with beautiful ornamental pearl inlay, together with his name. Autry was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1969 for his songwriting abilities as well as his singing and acting. In 1980, he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall Of Fame Of Great Westerners. At the time of his induction, he was described as ‘one of the most famous men, not only in America but in the world’. Autry sold the final 10 acres of his Melody Ranch film set in 1991. The ranch, in Placerita Canyon, California, which was used for the making of such classic westerns asHigh Noon and the television seriesGunsmoke, is scheduled to become a historical feature.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.