Whether he was wearing his white hat while riding his trusty horse, Champion, or singing his signature song, “Back in the Saddle Again,” Gene Autry was an American icon and perfectly defined the cowboy image.
Born in Tiago, Texas, Autry grew up in the small town of Ravia, Oklahoma. His mother taught him to play guitar and he learned to sing in church. As a teenager, Autry got his first taste of show business traveling with the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show.
While making a living as a telegrapher for the St. Louis and Frisco Railroad, he decided to use one of his free employee passes and travel to New York in search of a singing career. The trip was unsuccessful, and Autry returned to Oklahoma where he landed a spot on a radio show on KVOO in Tulsa. The next year, he made a second visit to New York. This trip led to a string of recordings for various labels, most notably RCA Victor.
By 1931, Autry’s style was becoming his very own and he was signed to a recording contract with ARC, which is known today as Columbia Records. Although this was not the ideal time for starting a career due to the Great Depression, Autry’s cause was helped by his exposure on the WLS National Barn Dance. In addition, a local radio station, owned by the Sears, Roebuck and Company, started promoting him aggressively by marketing an inexpensive ‘Gene Autry Round-up Guitar,’ as well as selling his songbooks and albums.
Autry had fast become one of the most popular singers in America. By the end of the decade, his top songs included “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” “Mexicali Rose” and “Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle.” He made his debut in the 1934 film ‘In Old Santa Fe.’ Autry’s magnetism on camera was immediately evident and by the end of 1935, he had made four feature films. In all, Autry made a total of 95 movies and was the top Western star in the 1930’s and early 1940’s.
In 1942, he joined the military, serving in the Army Air Corps. Autry was a pilot and flew throughout North Africa and the Far East. He returned from the service in late 1945, and soon, he delivered another impressive list of hit singles, including “Silver Spurs (On the Golden Stairs)” and “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You.” In 1947, his recording of “Here Comes Santa Claus” became a Christmas standard. Autry followed with other successful novelty tunes like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Peter Cottontail” and “Frosty the Snow Man.”
As the new decade began, he branched out into radio and television. His popular ‘Melody Ranch’ radio program ran for 17 years while his television series, The Gene Autry Show, was overwhelmingly popular, running from 1950-1956. He retired from active performances at that time to seek many business interests.
Autry, a long-time baseball fan who once passed on a chance to play in the minor leagues, was awarded the Los Angeles Angels in December of 1960 during the American League franchise expansion. The Walt Disney Company bought part interest in the team in 1995, and took control of the Angels the following year.
Known as ‘The Singing Cowboy,’ his list of accomplishments is phenomenal. Autry was the first country artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is also the only entertainer to have five stars there, one each for radio, records, movies, television and live theatrical performances. In 1969, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Three years later, he received the the Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music.
On Oct. 2, 1998, he died at the age of 91. If anybody ever fit the mold of a true all-around hero, it would’ve been Autry. His incredible legacy made him one of the most recognizable figures in show business.
Beebe native Charles Haymes is a member of both the Country Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.