The Singing Cowboy - Gene Autry
"I always loved being the cowboy. I always felt like a hero for some reason." - Gene Autry
Orvon Gene Autry was born September 29th, 1907 in Tioga, Texas. Raised in a churchgoing family, his grandfather William Autry, a local minister, had taught young Gene to sing by the time he was five years old. The Autrys impressed on Gene the importance of family and the family's legacy as a founding family of Texas. The Autrys were one of the original families to move to Texas - in fact, two members of Gene Autry's family died in the Alamo.
His father Delbert and mother Elnora constantly worked with him on singing, teaching him hymns, folk songs, and psalms. Around the age of 12, he received his first guitar from a Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog for $8 dollars. Gene valued the instrument he got, because he had spent the entire summer stacking hay to earn the money for it.
By the age of 15, Gene took every opportunity to perform for the members of the community, playing in school plays and local cafés. When he finished high school he continued performing, but money was tight and he went to work first as a apprentice on a railroad for a few months. Soon he found he had an aptitude for operating the telegraph. Within a few months he became a telegraph operator, making $150 a month - the equivalent of a $50,000 a year job today.
While working at a local telegraph office in Chelsea, OK, one summer night in 1927, Gene started strumming his guitar and singing quietly to himself. In the shadows a man came up, and when Gene stopped playing the man motioned for him to keep playing. After a few songs, Gene got up from where he was playing to help the customer only to realize that it was famed humorist Will Rogers. Rogers told him he should become an entertainer. This fateful chance encounter gave young Autry the courage to leave his steady job. One year later, Gene was in New York auditioning for a representative of RCA Victor. They told him he was good, but first he needed to get some seasoning. Six months later Gene came back on October 9th, 1929 to cut his first record, "My Dreaming Of You" and "My Alabama Home". Two weeks later he was recording a demo for Columbia with "Blue Yodel No. 5" for Jimmie Rodgers, who was at the time the "King of Country Music".
RCA became angry over the demo and tried to sign him up before Columbia, but he chose American Recording Company instead, because they promised to make him the biggest star on their label.
Gene's first few releases happened right before his mother fell ill and died of cancer. After the loss of his wife, Delbert drifted away, leaving Gene as head of the family for his two sisters and younger brother. In early December 1929 he recorded his first six songs. The one that became a breakthrough success was "That Silvered-Haired Daddy Of Mine", which wasn't released until 1931, but it was soon a smash selling 30,000 copies in one month and another 500,000 within the first year.
ARC presented a gold plated copy of the record to Autry, the first "gold record" ever. The record also brought him a career as radio host on the National Barn Dance Show out of Chicago. It was there that he would become internationally known.
Early in Gene's career he worked with a number of artists who would later be famous in their own right, among them Fred Rose (writer of Your Cheatin Heart), and Carl Cotner. In 1936 he signed a young guitarist named Merle Travis to his band. During the 1930's he became one of the most famous people in world, receiving hundreds of fan letters a day. Meanwhile his record sales continued to climb to heights no other recording artist had known previously.
Gene was also approached by Mascot Pictures to sing in one of their moves. The western movies hadn't fared well after the invention of "talkies" and many of the western stars didn't have the ability to read lines and perform tricks at the same time. When they brought Gene in even for a short scene in "Old Santa Fe" it made it a hit. Throughout the following years all of Gene Autry's films would become classics and beloved by the public. On September 5th, 1935, Tumbling Tumbleweeds was released. Previously he had been the most famous B-movie actor in the world - now he was the most famous actor, period.
When World War II broke out he enlisted and fought against the Germans in France. When he returned to the states he continued making movies and recording songs. Although, he was still a draw to the movies he had lost some of his star power and over the course of ten years moved into television production, which he viewed as the future.
Also, in the years that he was in decline he had bought several radio stations, a studio, a production company, which he used to start television programs when the format was first created. Gene's recording career never slowed. He scored some of the largest hits in history, among them "Blueberry Hill", "Silver Spurs", "Sioux City Sue", and one of the most popular recordings of all time "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer", the first-ever platinum record.
Gene was always able to pull a crowd, but as the 1950's came around, blues and R&B eclipsed him. In the following years he would return to his home in Tioga, manage his businesses, and live a peaceful life until his death on October 2nd, 1998.
(J. Charles Miller)