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Tex Ritter Biography

Maurice Woodward Ritter, 12 January 1905, near Murvaul, Panola County, Texas, USA, d. 2 January 1974, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. The youngest of six children, he grew up on the farm that the Ritter family had worked for over 70 years. He attended High School in Beaumont and then entered the University of Texas in Austin. Here he began his studies for a law degree in Government and Political Science. Ritter was active in the debating societies and sang with the University Glee Club. During this period, he developed a lasting interest in cowboy songs, being greatly influenced by the research of such authorities as John A. Lomax and J. Frank Dobie. He financed himself during his time at the university by working menial jobs but finally left in 1928, having completed only the first year of his Law School course.

He sang cowboy and folk songs on KPCR Houston and struggled to make a living selling insurance. After meeting members of a touring operetta company in Austin, he joined them, finally arriving with the company in a Depression-gripped New York. He possibly sang on Broadway In The New Moon in September 1928, although some accounts place his arrival in the city a year later. After visiting Chicago, Ritter decided to continue his studies for his Law degree and entered Northwestern University Law School in Evanston, Illinois, in September 1929. Without financial backing, he soon found himself unable to continue with the course and left to join a touring production of The New Moon in 1930. Late in 1930, he successfully auditioned for the part of Cord Elam in Green Grow The Lilacs. The producer said he wanted real cowboys who could sing, but farm boy Woodward reckoned he qualified (it was around this time that he acquired his nickname ‘Tex’). After a test run in Boston, the company opened on Broadway on 26 January 1931, with Tex not only singing four songs as Elam but also understudying leading actor Franchot Tone. The play was very successful (it was later converted into the musical Oklahoma!) and Tex stayed with it until it finally closed in Detroit. He sang on NBC radio and in 1932, he played the part of Sagebrush Charlie in a Broadway production of The Roundup and later appeared in Mother Lode.

In the early 30s, Ritter also worked on various radio programmes. He sang songs and told tales of the Old West in Lone Star Rangers and appeared in several radio dramas, including Death Valley Days and CBS’ networked Bobby Benson’s Adventures (later appearing in the music version Songs Of The B-Bar-B). In 1933, he starred in a daily children’s cowboy radio show on WINS New York called Cowboy Tom’s Roundup. His popularity also saw him appear on WHN radio with Tex Ritter’s Campfire and The WHN Barn Dance. He made four recordings for ARC (American Record Corporation) in March 1933 but only ‘Rye Whiskey’ was released and he subsequently moved to Decca Records, where he made his first recordings, ‘Sam Hall’ and ‘Get Along Little Dogie’, on 21 January 1935. He went on to record a further 28 songs for the label, the last being in January 1939, in a session in Los Angeles, billed as Tex Ritter And His Texans, which produced four recordings including his version of the Vagabonds’ hit ‘When It’s Lamp Lighting Time In The Valley’. Actually his ‘Texans’ were the Sons Of The Pioneers, a group more usually associated with Roy Rogers than Ritter. Many of the songs recorded were featured in his films, plus one or two popular numbers such as ‘Nobody’s Darlin’ But Mine’.

In 1936, Grand National Pictures decided that they, like other companies, should make some singing cowboy westerns. Unfortunately they had no singing cowboy under contract, but Edward Finney, a producer working with the company, promised he would find one. Ritter was drawn to his attention and Finney signed him to a personal contract, thus becoming his producer-agent. Ritter soon accepted a contract that promised to pay him, as the star, $2, 400 per picture. The challenge of Hollywood was too good to refuse; Ritter found himself a horse, White Flash, and although more than competent with the singing aspect of his new career, he was coached by one-time outlaw Al Jennings on how to look equally convincing with a gun and his fists. The first of his 12 Grand National B-westerns, Song Of The Gringo, was shot in five days and was released in November 1936. Headin’ For The Rio Grande followed shortly afterwards, and he co-starred with one Rita Cansino (later Rita Hayworth) in his fourth film, Trouble In Texas (1937). In 1938, after Utah Trail, Grand National’s financial problems saw Finney move Ritter to Monogram, where by 1941, he had made 20 films, most of which received critical lashings. When his contract with Finney expired, Ritter decided to look after his own affairs and signed with Columbia Pictures.

Financially, things improved, and in 1941, he co-starred with Bill Elliott in eight more films. When Elliott left for Republic, Ritter assumed that he would become the studio’s only cowboy star and was shocked when Columbia released him. He and White Flash moved to Universal, where he starred in seven films with Johnny Mack Brown and once again suffered by the double billing. In 1943, Brown moved on, leaving Ritter to star alone in his next three films, the last being Oklahoma Raiders. Financial problems then forced Universal to drop the series but many rate these as three of Ritter’s best pictures. In 1944, he joined PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), where he made a series of eight films that were later described as being little better than the low-budget Grand National series. On 15 October 1945, Tex Ritter’s last singing cowboy film, Flaming Bullets, was released. Ritter married Dorothy Fay Southworth (b. 4 April 1915, Prescott, Arizona, USA, d. 5 November 2003, Woodland Hills, California, USA) on 14 June 1941, a promising actress (known as Dorothy Fay) who had been his leading lady four times and also appeared in The Philadelphia Story. After their marriage, she gave up her career and subsequently raised their two sons, Thomas (Tom) and John (b. Jonathan Southworth Ritter, 17 September 1948, Burbank, California, USA, d. 11 September 2003, Los Angeles, California, USA). During his singing cowboy years, Ritter made countless personal appearances to promote his films and his stage shows with White Flash were very popular. A number of songbooks were issued, such as the Tex Ritter Cowboy Song Folio (1937) and Tex Ritter: Mountain Ballads And Cowboy Songs (1941).

When he realized that his film career was over, Ritter concentrated on his touring show, which he combined with his recording work. After his Decca contract ended, he did not resume his recording career until 1942, when he became the first C&W singer signed to the newly formed Capitol Records, with whom he stayed until his death. He achieved considerable success with ‘Jingle, Jangle, Jingle’, which topped the Hit Parade chart for several weeks in July and August 1942. In 1944, Capitol 174 proved a smash hit for him with ‘I’m Wastin’ My Tears On You’ (a country number 1/pop number 11) and ‘There’s A New Moon Over My Shoulder’ (number 2 in the country chart and number 21 in the pop chart). Between 1945 and 1946, he registered seven successive Top 5 hits, including ‘You Two Timed Me One Time Too Often’, a country number 1 for 11 weeks. In 1948, ‘Rye Whiskey’ and his version of ‘Deck Of Cards’ both made the Top 10, while ‘Pecos Bill’ from the Walt Disney movie Melody Time also reached number 15. In 1950, ‘Daddy’s Last Letter (Private First Class John H McCormick)’, based on an actual letter from a soldier killed in Korea, became a surprise hit for him.

In the early 50s, the chart hits had dried up and it seemed that Ritter’s career was nearing an end. He maintained his touring but was unable to gain television exposure other than guest appearances. The situation suddenly changed when he was asked to record the soundtrack song for the Fred Zinnemann film High Noon (which starred Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly). Ritter’s US recording was made on 14 May 1952 without the drum beat so prominent in the film; it was dubbed on in August. In September or October, while touring the UK, he recorded a version in Decca’s London studios (with an orchestra directed by Johnny Douglas) that contained the drumbeat and which is probably Ritter’s best recording of the song. This version was not released in the USA but was included on a Bear Family Records album in 1992. The resultant success of the film and the popularity of Ritter’s recording relaunched his career. Surprisingly, he did not particularly like the song and had to be persuaded to sing it at the Academy Awards ceremony where it won an Oscar for Best Title Song. (Perhaps surprisingly, Ritter’s recording of the song never actually made the country charts and in the UK it was Frankie Laine’s version that became a Top 10 pop hit.)

Following the success of ‘High Noon’, Ritter became the star of the Los Angeles television show Town Hall Party, which ran until 1961. He also guested on various western adventure programmes such as Zane Grey Theatre but one writer has been unkind enough to comment that ‘none of the roles were memorable and his extra heft and advancing age, unfortunately, took away somewhat from the memory of his movie singing roles of previous years’. He also sang other movie and television themes, including ‘The Marshal’s Daughter’, ‘Trooper Hook’, ‘Gunsmoke’ and ‘The Searchers’. In 1963, Ritter was a founder member of the Country Music Association and in 1964, he became only the fifth person and first singing cowboy to be elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame. The plaque stated: ‘One of America’s most versatile stars of radio, television, records, motion pictures and Broadway stage. Untiring champion of the country and western music industry’. The following year when the Grand Ole Opry granted him life membership, he finally moved his home from California to Nashville. He played himself in What Am I Bid? (1967), in which he sang ‘I Never Got To Kiss The Girl’ - an amusing number based on fact, since he never did in any of his westerns.

In 1970, Ritter was persuaded to run for election to the Senate but as a writer later reported, ‘maybe the electorate did not want to lose him to Washington, they wanted him to stay at the Opry’, and he was not elected. Suggestions that he should slow down had little effect and he was still in great demand for personal appearance tours. He toured the UK in May 1973 and played three concerts in Scotland and 28 in England on successive days (he had first toured the UK and Europe in 1952). On 2 January 1974, at a time when he was working on arrangements for a further tour, he was told that one of his band members was in Nashville’s jail over a matter of unpaid child support. He immediately went to the jail to arrange bail and while there, he suffered a heart attack from which he died within minutes. His final chart hit, ‘The Americans’, entered the charts a few days after his death. Although he starred in 58 B-westerns and appeared in over 20 other films, to a great many people Ritter was much more than merely a one-time singing cowboy. He was a very respected statesman and his vast knowledge of the history of folk, country and cowboy music made him a popular figure wherever he went.

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

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