Gene Autry (1907–1998) was a wildly popular singing cowboy who starred in Hollywood movies of the mid-20th century. A matinee idol with numerous hit movies and number-one songs, Autry was equally successful performing on radio and early television. He had a flair for business as well as entertainment, and he remained a beloved figure in American culture even after retiring from performing.
An American film, radio, and television actor, Gene Autry's name became synonymous with “singing cowboy” after his career took off in Hollywood movies and popular radio shows of the 1930s. Playing the same heroic good guy in film after film, Autry and his equally famous horse, Champion, caught bad guys, rescued the helpless, and saved the day, always with a song or two to share before the credits rolled. He volunteered for the U.S. military at the start of World War II, winning public respect as well as creating an opening for the talented young Roy Rogers to become the next cowboy star. In 1950, he was the first movie star to transition to television, starring in his iconic Western show and producing several others. A sharp businessman, Autry left performing in 1964 and created the broadcasting and real estate empire that enabled him to help foster the early professional rodeo circuit, collect Western artifacts and memorabilia, and become a key figure in major-league baseball management.
Born to Delbert and Elnora (Ozment) Autry in tiny Tioga, Texas, on September 29, 1907, Orvon Gene Autry grew up on the family ranch. He sang in the church choir from age five and bought his first guitar at age 12 with cash earned from baling and stacking hay for his uncle. When Autry was in his teens, his family moved to southern Oklahoma, where he attended high school and continued to work for his father. A wiry boy and a hard worker, he learned the hay and livestock business while also forming the habit of reading several newspapers, front to back, every day. Later in life, a friend would describe Autry's education as “high school, newspapers, and experience.”
Late one quiet night in Chelsea, Oklahoma, Autry was manning the desk as usual, with his trusty guitar nearby. With long stretches between sending or receiving telegrams, he often passed the time playing songs. On this particular night, he met a man who would change Autry's destiny. “This farmer lookin' guy, with glasses on the tip of his nose, came into the office and gave me some pages to send,” the actor later recalled in his autobiography Back in the Saddle. Seeing the guitar, the man asked Autry to play a song. Liking what he heard, he told the young telegrapher that he had a future in radio. This compliment meant even more to Autry when he learned that the man was none other than Will Rogers, a famous humorist and performing cowboy who starred in major stage shows and silent movies.
Autry was inspired by Rogers's advice; He had been performing at local dances and events and was now determined to take his music farther. Rather than start with local radio, however, he decided to aim high, saving money for a trip to New York City to audition for a major record label. Autry made the trip in 1928, auditioning for Victor Records. Turned down for a contract, he asked to speak with their music director. The executive explained that he had not been turned down for lack of talent but because they had just hired two similar performers. He gave Autry a letter of recommendation, advising him to gain experience playing live on radio, and return in a couple of years.
Autry was soon performing on live radio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and within a year he had his first recording contract, playing hillbilly music for Columbia Records in New York City. Another major opportunity beckoned in Chicago, where he became a featured performer on National Barn Dance, a popular radio show with a national audience. In these early years, Autry often collaborated with other musicians, playing various kinds of American “roots” music: hillbilly music, blues, labor songs, and, of course, cowboy songs.
In 1932, Autry married Ina May Spivey, a schoolteacher from Oklahoma, whom he met while working as a telegrapher. A year after Ina died in 1980, he would wed Jacqueline Ellam, a banker he had first met in 1963 and who had worked with him professionally. He had no children.
As his career grew, radio would remain a big part of Autry's focus; in addition to numerous hit records, he starred in several radio shows and eventually became owner of several radio stations. In 1939, although well into his movie career, his live performance before a huge audience in Ireland got the attention of P.K. Wrigley, creator of Doublemint gum. Wrigley was looking for a new radio show to sponsor, and Autry's wholesome cowboy seemed like the right kind of hero to star in such a show. The result, Autry's Melody Ranch Show, played every weekend on CBS Radio over 16 years. These radio serials were the forerunner of, and would later be replaced by, television series.
Over his 40 years as a performer, Autry would sell over 100 million records, garnering more than a dozen gold and platinum records. He consistently placed high on the country-music charts, crossing over to the national popular music charts, especially with several Christmas songs. In December of 1949, his rendition of Johnny Marks's 1939 hit “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” became a number-one hit, and in 1969 it earned him one of several gold records when it was included in his compilation album The Original: Gene Autry Sings Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & Other Christmas Favorites. Other hits performed by Autry during his career included “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” “Back in the Saddle Again,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and “I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.”
In the beginning, the movies were one hour long and intended to be shown on Saturday afternoons to children. However, Autry quickly became a major box-office attraction, and he was among the top ten earners in Hollywood films by 1940. His leading characters in movies and on the radio were cowboys of high moral character who served as a profound influence on his young audience. Autry viewed this as a responsibility, and he created a “cowboy's code” to share with young people. Examples included: The cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage; the cowboy must be truthful and kind to children, the elderly, and animals; and cowboys must not advocate or possess racially intolerant ideas.
Autry's fame as the singing cowboy grew, and as Westerns became more popular in Hollywood, his movies hit the big time. No cowboy had captured the public's attention to such a degree; Autry's multimedia presence on radio, in the movies, and in person created an indelible impression. Amid his celebrity, he never forgot his rural roots, packing as many personal appearances at fairs and other local events as he could, often with one of his trusty, well-trained horses named Champion. Along with his record albums, he licensed a range of official Gene Autry goods for children that included cowboy hats, western shirts and pants, schoolbags, six-shooters and holsters, watches, belts, and boots.
By 1941, while Gene Autry was a household name in the United States, the attention elsewhere in the world was on the war in Europe. With Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawai'i, the country joined the Allies and entered World War II. Now 35 years old, Autry felt duty-bound to serve his country and joined the Air Transport Command as a flight officer, serving until the war's end in 1945. In the meantime, his younger colleague, Roy Rogers, stepped into his singing cowboy roles. Although Autry returned to movies and radio after the war, he had a broadened outlook. In 1950, he became the first movie star to try television, producing and starring in The Gene Autry Show, which would run for 91 episodes over five years.
The war also impressed on Autry the need to think about his future; as it was now, if he stopped performing, his income would dry up. He decided to invest in things that would last beyond his career as an entertainer, and his first choice was a radio station. Thus began Autry's creation of a media empire that would include radio and television stations and, eventually, a network, Golden West Broadcasters. After retiring from performing in 1964, he further branched out into hospitality, buying and developing several hotels, some which bore his name. A search for a sports broadcasting opportunity eventually resulted in Autry's purchase of the Los Angeles (later California) Angels baseball team. While the team never captured a pennant for its new owner, its value grew tremendously, and he ultimately sold it to Disney Corporation.
Success in business suited Autry's generous nature. Along with his baseball team, to which he was passionately devoted, he maintained an abiding interest in the lore and history of the Old West. In 1952, he bought the movie ranch where most of his early movies were made. He ran it as a working movie set, hosting cowboy movie luminaries such as John Wayne and Gary Cooper as well as shooting his own and others' Western television shows there. Together with his second wife, he also created the Autry Museum of the American West, donating his considerable collection of memorabilia and historical artifacts. Autry was also a major booster for rodeo, supporting the professional circuit and helping to raise its profile as a uniquely American sport.
Over his decades as an entertainer and leading businessman, Autry received recognition for his contributions to music, movies, sports, and business. He is the only entertainer to have received stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in all five categories: radio, recording, motion pictures, television, and live performance. Autry also earned lifetime achievement awards from numerous organizations, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Guild. He died on October 2, 1998, at his home in Studio City, California, at age 91.
Autry, Gene, Back in the Saddle Again, Doubleday, 1978.
George-Warren, Holly, Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Grover Lewis, “True to the West: After 26 Years and $34 Million, Gene Autry Gets His Dream Museum”; October 3, 1998, Myrna Oliver, “Cowboy Tycoon Gene Autry Dies.”
New York Times, October 3, 1998, Albin Krebs, “Gene Autry, Singing Movie Cowboy Who Rode Champion to Fame, Dies at 91.”
The Official Website for Gene Autry, America's Favorite Singing Cowboy, http://www.autry.com/home.php (July 8, 2017).□