Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Orvon Grover Autry, 29 September 1907, Indian Creek TX; d 2 October 1998) The first and most successful of singing cowboys. His father was a peripatetic ne'er-do-well; his mother was a wonderful woman who died of pellagra, easily preventable a few years later. He played sax but preferred singing, and switched to guitar. He worked as a railway telegrapher in Oklahoma; the story is that he sang for a stranger sending a wire who encouraged him, and turned out to be humorist Will Rogers: he probably met Rogers, who sent telegrams from that depot, but the story was probably embroidered. Autry went to NYC on a free rail pass, auditioned for Victor and was told to go away and get some experience on the radio; he had his own radio show in Tulsa, then to WLS Barn Dance in Chicago and success '30-4. The Sears and Roebuck catalogue carried a full-page ad for his records; songbooks and guitars carried his name. The Frisco RR knew about his extracurricular activities and approved; he worked for them for eight years, until after he was becoming a star on radio and records, to keep the railroad pass, but the Depression was taking its toll on the railroad business and the Frisco had to give him up.

Like others, Autry began as a Jimmie Rodgers imitator, singing Rodgers's songs; also 'A Gangster's Warning', 'You Are My Sunshine', 'My Old Pal Of Yesterday', and one of the biggest sellers of all time, 'That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine', co-written with Jimmie Long; it sold 30,000 copies in three months (the Everly Brothers revived it on a 1958 LP, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us). Another famous Autry record, 'The Death Of Mother Jones', was a labour movement song, his disc available on at least seven labels from the ARC conglomerate. In 1934 producer Nat Levine, looking for someone who could ride, sing and act for Western 'B' movies, settled for Autry, though was no actor and had to be taught how to walk like  a cowboy, knowing that the films were aimed at the same small-town audience that heard Autry on the radio. His first solo epic was a 12-part sci-fi cowboy serial called Phantom Empire (he sang 'Silver-Haired Daddy' in eight episodes); he then made over 100 movies for Republic and Monogram (Boots And Saddles '37, Under Western Stars '38, Carolina Moon '40, etc). The songs became more cowboy-flavoured ('Tumbling Tumbleweeds', 'Mexicali Rose' '36); comic sidekicks (first Smiley Burnette, then Pat Buttram) were popular with kids the world over; a visit to Dublin in 1939 allegedly brought a million people into the streets: Champion became a very famous horse. (In fact the horse later had his own show, The Adventures of Champion on radio 1949-50, and on TV '55, and there was even a pop record, 'Champion The Wonder Horse', by Frankie Laine.) Jimmy Wakeley and Johnny Bond were among the country singers who came to Hollywood as members of the Autry organization. Then he stopped his own career by volunteering during WWII, spent flying in Burma: Roy Rogers took his place as king of the Saturday matinee.

Levine had been partners with Herbert J. Yates in Republic Pictures, but Yates bought him out, and Autry constantly squabbled with Yates for more of the money being made on the cowboy pictures. After the war Autry was willing to make more quick, cheap movies, but Yates wasn't willing to pay him decently, so Autry turned to television and became king of the Saturday morning cowboys. The operators of the movie theaters, particularly in rural areas that didn't even have much TV yet, were disgusted with Yates, who could not provide the product they were used to, while Autry started his own production company, kept ownership of his TV programs and became seriously wealthy, owning hotels, petrol [gasoline] and radio stations and a baseball team (the Los Angeles Angels).   

Autry's hits post-war were seasonal money spinners: 'Rudolph The Rednosed Reindeer', 'Here Comes Santa Claus' came out in 1949 and was annually in the charts for years; also 'Frosty The Snowman' and 'Here Comes Peter Cottontail'. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969. There were compilations of hits on Columbia; also Back In The Saddle Again on ASV. Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry (Oxford University Press, 2007) by Holly George-Warren was full and well-researched, with notes, bibliography and discography, very good on an era of show business that is long gone.

Monty Hale (b San Angelo TX; d 29 March 2009, Los Angeles) was another singing cowboy and a pal of Autry's. He made a dozen of his own films for Republic in the 1940s, had supporting roles in Giant (1956, with James Dean) and The Chase (1966, with Marlon Brando) and guest-starred in TV western series such as Gunsmoke. Hale and his wife and Autry's widow founded the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, later renamed the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, and still later the Museum of the American West, a part of the Autry National Center of the American West.