Orvon Gene Autry (September 29 1907 – October 2 1998) was an American performer who gained fame as The Singing Cowboy on the radio, in movies and on television.
Autry, the grandson of a Methodist
preacher, was born near Tioga, Texas
. His parents, Delbert Autry and Elnora Ozment, moved to Ravia, Oklahoma
in the 1920s. After leaving high school in 1925, Autry worked as a telegrapher for the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway
Recordings and early radio
An amateur talent with the guitar and voice led to his performing at local dances. After an encouraging chance encounter with Will Rogers
, he began performing on local radio in 1928 as "Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy".
He signed a recording deal with Columbia Records in 1929. He worked in Chicago, Illinois, on the WLS (AM) radio show National Barn Dance for four years with his own show where he met singer/songwriter Smiley Burnette. In his early recording career Autry covered various genres, including a labor song, "The Death of Mother Jones" in 1931.
Autry also recorded many "hillbilly" style records in 1930 and 1931 in New York City which were certainly different in style and content than his later recordings. These much closer in style to the Prairie Ramblers or Dick Justice, and included the "Do Right Daddy Blues" and "Black Bottom Blues", both of which contain substantial similarity to "Deep Elem Blues". These late prohibition era songs deal with bootlegging, corrupt police, and women whose occupation is certainly vice. These recording are generally not heard today, but are available on European import labels such as JSP Records.
But his first hit was in 1932 with That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine, a duet with fellow railroad man, Jimmy Long. Autry also sang the classic Ray Whitley hit "Back in the Saddle Again", as well as many Christmas songs including "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town", his own composition "Here Comes Santa Claus", "Frosty the Snowman" and probably his biggest hit ever, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".
Autry also owned the Challenge Records label. The label's biggest hit was "Tequila" by The Champs in 1958, which started the rock and roll instrumental craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Discovered by film producer Nat Levine
, he and Burnette made their film debut for Mascot Pictures
Corp. in In Old Santa Fe
as part of a singing cowboy quartet; he was then given the starring role by Levine in 1935 in the 12-part serial The Phantom Empire
. Shortly thereafter, Mascot was absorbed by the formation of Republic Pictures Corp.
and Autry went along to make a further 44 films up to 1940, all B westerns
in which he played under his own name, rode his horse
Champion, had Burnette as his regular sidekick
and had many opportunities to sing in each film. He became the top Western star at the box-office by 1937, reaching his national peak of popularity from 1940 to 1942. His Gene Autry Flying "A" Ranch Rodeo
show debuted in 1940.
He was the first of the singing cowboys, succeeded as the top star by Roy Rogers when Autry served as a C-47 Skytrain pilot of the United States Army Air Forces with the rank of Flight Officer in the Air Transport Command during World War II flying dangerous missions over the Hump between Burma and China.
From 1940 to 1956, Autry had a huge hit with a weekly radio show on CBS
, Gene Autry's Melody Ranch
, and his horse, Champion, also had a radio-TV series The Adventures of Champion
Autry briefly returned to Republic after the war, to finish out his contract, which had been suspended for the duration of his military service and which he had tried to have declared void after his discharge. Thereafter, he formed his own production company to make westerns under his own control, which were distributed by Columbia Pictures, beginning in 1947. He also starred in and produced his own television show on CBS beginning in 1950. He retired from show business in 1964, having made almost a hundred films up to 1955 and over 600 records. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969 and to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. Post-retirement, he invested widely in real estate, radio and television, including purchasing from dying Republic Pictures the rights for films he had made for the company.
In 1952, Autry bought the old Monogram Ranch in Placerita Canyon (Newhall-Santa Clarita, California) and renamed it Melody Ranch Numerous "B" Westerns and TV serials were shot there during Autry's ownership, including the initial years of "Gunsmoke" with James Arness. Melody Ranch burned down in 1962, dashing Autry's plans to turn it into a museum. According to a published story by Autry, the fire diverted his attention to Griffith Park, where he would build his Museum of Western Heritage (now known as the Autry National Center). But like a phoenix rising, Melody Ranch came back to life after 1991 when it was purchased by the Veluzat family and rebuilt. It survives as a movie location today as well as the home of the City of Santa Clarita's annual Cowboy Festival, where Autry's legacy always takes center stage.
Autry created the Cowboy Code
or Cowboy Commandments
in response to his young radio listeners aspiring to be just like Gene.
- The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
- He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
- He must always tell the truth.
- He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
- He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
- He must help people in distress.
- He must be a good worker.
- He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
- He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.
- The Cowboy is a patriot.
In the 1950s, Autry had been a minority owner of the minor-league Hollywood Stars
. In 1960, when Major League Baseball
announced plans to add an expansion team in Los Angeles, Autry – who had once declined an opportunity to play in the minor leagues
– expressed an interest in acquiring the radio broadcast rights to the team's games; baseball executives were so impressed by his approach that he was persuaded to become the owner of the franchise rather than simply its broadcast partner. The team, initially called the Los Angeles Angels
upon its 1961
debut, moved to suburban Anaheim
in 1966 and became known as the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels from 1997 until 2005, when it became the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Autry served as vice president of the American League
from 1983 until his death. In 1995
he sold a quarter share of the team to The Walt Disney Company
, and a controlling interest the following year, with the remaining share to be transferred after his death. Earlier, in 1982, he sold Los Angeles television station KTLA
for $245 million. He also sold several radio stations he owned, including KSFO
in San Francisco, KMPC
in Los Angeles, KOGO
in San Diego, and other stations in the Golden West radio network.
The number 26 was retired by the Angels in Autry's honor. The chosen number reflected that baseball's rosters are 25-man strong and Autry's support for his team.
In 1932 he married Ina May Spivey (who died in 1980), who was the niece of Jimmy Long. He married his second wife, Jackie Autry
, in 1981. He had no children by either marriage.
During World War II
Autry served as a pilot in the United States Army Air Forces
with the rank of Flight Officer
. He flew the C-47 Skytrain
in the Air Transport Command
flying dangerous missions over the Hump
Hollywood Walk of Fame
Gene Autry is the only celebrity
to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
, one in each of the five categories maintained by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce
The stars are:
|| Address |
|| Motion pictures
|| 6644 Hollywood Blvd. |
|| 6520 Hollywood Blvd. |
|| 6384 Hollywood Blvd. |
|| 6667 Hollywood Blvd. |
|| 7000 Hollywood Blvd. |
In 1972, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame
at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
. Autry was a life member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks
, Burbank Lodge No. 1497. His 1976 autobiography, co-written by Mickey Herskowitz, was titled Back in the Saddle Again
after his 1939 hit and signature tune. He is also featured year after year, on radio and "shopping mall theme music" at the holiday season, by his famous recording of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
". "Rudolph" became the first #1 hit of the 1950s. CMT
in 2003 ranked him #38 in CMT's 40 Greatest Men of Country Music
When the Anaheim Angels won their first World Series in 2002, much of the championship was dedicated to him. The interchange of Interstate 5 and State Route 134, located near the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, is signed as the "Gene Autry Memorial Interchange." In 2007, he became a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana.
Johnny Cash recorded a song in 1978 about Autry called "Who is Gene Autry". Cash also got Autry to sign his famous black Martin D-35 guitar and the signature can be seen very clearly in the video for "Hurt." NWA Eazy-E mentioned Autry in his song We Want Eazy in his 1988 album Eazy Duz It.
The Museum of the American West
The Museum of the American West
in Los Angeles
' Griffith Park
was founded in 1988 as the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, featuring much of his collection of Western art and memorabilia. Its mission is to preserve everything related to the "mythic aspects" of the American "old West" from true historical lifestyles to the 70-year saga of the Hollywood "Western movie" genre.
Included for many years on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans, he slipped to their "near miss" category in 1995 with an estimated net worth of $320 million. Gene Autry died of lymphoma at age 91 at his home in Studio City, California and is interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. His death on October 2, 1998 came nearly three months after the death of another celebrated cowboy of the silver screen, radio, and TV, Roy Rogers.
Gene Autry was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2004, the Starz Entertainment Corporation joined forces with the Autry estate to restore all of his films, which have been shown on Starz's Encore Western Channel on cable television on a regular basis to date since.
Popular songs recorded by Autry
- "You Are My Sunshine"
- "A Face I See at Evening"
- "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine"
- "The Last Roundup"
- "Cowboy's Heaven"
- "South of the Border"
- "Tumbling Tumbleweeds"
- "Mexicali Rose"
- "Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle"
- "Gold Mine in the Sky"
- "South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)"
- "Back in the Saddle Again" (1939)
- "Blueberry Hill" (1941)
- "Be Honest With Me"
- "Here Comes Santa Claus" (1947)
- "Ghost Riders in the Sky" (1949)
- "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1949)
- "Peter Cottontail" (1950)
- "Frosty the Snow Man" (1950)
- "Up on the Housetop"
- "Nobody's Darlin' but Mine"