Born Orvon Gene Autry, September 29, 1907 in Tioga, TX (died October 2, 1998); son of Delbert (a livestock dealer) and Elnora (Ozment) Autry; married Ina Mae Spivey, 1932 (died, 1980); married Jacqueline Ellam, 1981.
The original singing cowboy, Gene Autry lived by a cowboy creed to fight fair, tell the truth, keep your word, and always help those in trouble. He lived by this creed both in life and on screen. Hall of Fame singer, broadcaster, film star, broadcast tycoon, and founder of the California Angels baseball team, Autry is the only entertainer with five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame-for radio, records, movies, television and live performance. His endeavors, like his life, spanned the twentieth century as his career moved from radio to recording to movies to television, paralleling the discovery of each.
Autry generated more than 90 films and 90 television episodes, made 635 recordings, and sold more than 100 million records before his death in 1998. Among his most notable professional accomplishments were the creation of the popular "Melody Ranch" radio program, with its celebrated theme song, "Back in the Saddle Again" and his best-selling recording of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Sales of more than 50 million copies of the 1949 Christmas single propelled the song to the rank of biggest-selling single in history until Elton John toppled it in 1997 with "Candle in the Wind," his tribute to Princess Diana. Autry's happy-go-lucky nature was as much a trademark as his horse Champion and his white cowboy hat. But under the agreeable personality was an intense ambition, intelligence, and self-confidence that took him to a level of fame and fortune beyond his dreams.
Orvon Gene Autry was born on September 29, 1907, on a small farm near Tioga, Texas, to Delbert and Elnora Autry. The family moved to Ravia, Oklahoma, where his father, a livestock dealer, exposed him to the traditions of the West and the life of a cowboy. He developed a love for music at age 5 when he sang in his grandfather's Baptist church choir and his mother taught him to play the guitar. By the age of 12 Autry purchased a mail-order guitar from Sears Roebuck's catalog. Three years later he was singing at local cafes where he earned 50 cents a night.
Autry's first love may have been music, but he also developed a passion for baseball. He left school to pursue a career in the telegram business while playing as an American Legion shortstop. He was once offered a minor-league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, but he couldn't afford to take a 50 percent pay cut from his $100-a-month job as a telegraph operator on a St. Louis & San Francisco railroad line. So he remained in Chelsea, Oklahoma, sending telegrams and spending his spare time singing and plucking his guitar.
Advice from a Legend
According to legend, Will Rogers heard a 17-year-old Autry singing at the telegraph office and encouraged the young man to pursue a career in radio. That tip would change Autry's life forever, leading him to the top of the recording industry and onto the silver screen. He started out singing ballads in blackface make-up for 15 dollars a week with the Fields Brothers' Marvelous Medicine show, but soon traveled to New York where he was advised by Victor recording officials to get some local experience and learn how to sing yodel songs. Autry went home and quickly won his own series on a Tulsa radio station as the "Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy," emulating the sounds of his musical hero Jimmie Rodgers. Autry returned to New York in 1928 and recorded with such labels as Grey Gull, Gennett, and Velvet Tone.
Autry had a knack for predicting how the public wanted to be entertained. He is considered the creator of the Singing Cowboy genre, beginning with "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," a record that went gold for selling a half-million copies. He made 635 records, with more than a dozen receiving Gold and Platinum status. His children's hits included "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Peter Cottontail."
When the Singing Cowboy started making motion pictures in 1934, he spent eight consecutive years as Hollywood's top box-office Western star. His first starring role was in the 1935 film, Tumblin' Tumbleweeds. He spent nearly three decades starring in more than 90 movies glorifying cowboy action, comedy and the wide-open spaces of the American West. But the focus of his films was on the music. Autry's appeal didn't subside until he left Hollywood in 1942 to join World War II as a member of the Army Air Corps. He was given the rank of Technical Sergeant and was promptly given his own radio show after being assigned to Special Services as an entertainer. However, Autry insisted on being taught to fly and was appointed Flight Officer and transferred to Air Transport Command.
A New Frontier
Autry was the first motion picture star to exploit the potential of television, the new entertainment frontier. Autry would later admit that his clean-cut image cost him a more varied career in movies, which might explain why he was so willing to help pioneer a new medium such as TV. He formed his own production company to make half-hour Western-themed series for television and began work on his own television series that lasted from 1950 to 1956.
Autry attempted to emulate his on-screen persona, but the man was truer to real life that his movie roles. Nevertheless, he ventured to honor "Gene Autry's Cowboy Code." Under the code, a cowboy never shot first, struck a smaller man or took unfair advantage. He always honored his word and never told a lie. He was a good worker, considerate to children and old folks, and respectful of women, parents, and the law. The "Angle of horseback" image stuck. However, his real-life persona was far from perfect. Autry admitted to a battle with alcohol. "Without knowing it, I had grown dependent on liquor to relax," he admitted in his autobiography Back In The Saddle Again. "Drinking was a way to celebrate. I was always on the go, fighting another deadline, racing to a studio or a business meeting. The more tired one gets, the easier it is to look for energy in a bottle."
A Cowboy Broadened His Horizons
Autry's career was far from over when he stopped performing in 1956. By 1995, he had built a corporate empire valued at nearly $320 million and was frequently named one of the 400 richest Americans. By the late 1980s, his holdings included four radio stations, the Gene Autry Hotel in Palm Springs, Western Music Publishing Inc., Golden West Melodies Inc., Ridgeway Music Publishing Inc., Melody Ranch Music, and Gene Autry Records Inc. In the early 1950s, Autry's sharp sense for entertainment trends led him into the business of broadcasting. He operated such award-winning stations as KMPC radio and KTLA television in Los Angeles under the banner of Golden West Broadcasters.
As a station owner in search of radio programming, Autry went to the baseball owners' meetings in St. Louis in 1960. He had recently lost the broadcast rights to the Dodgers and was looking to sign up one of the American League's new expansion teams. He returned home the owner of the Los Angeles Angels, which became the first American League franchise on the West Coast. Autry paid $2.4 million for the team that was reportedly worth $125 million in 1996, when Disney became a managing partner with 25 percent ownership.
Autry and his second wife Jackie opened the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in 1988. An achievement that he cherished deeply, the museum has been praised as one of the finest on Western history. Built with a $54 million donation from the Autry Foundation, it traces the development of the West, from its prehistoric roots to its Gold Rush days, with a nod to the romantic images created by Hollywood cowboys such as Autry and his comic sidekicks. An impressive collection of art and artifacts, it draws thousands of visitors every year.
Loss of a Legend
Autry died at home on October 2, 1998, just three days after his 91st birthday, after a lengthy battle with lymphoma. He had endured a great deal of pain in the year before his death, but he still managed to attend his final Angels game on September 23, when the Angels lost to the Texas Rangers. He had requested that no funeral be held and was buried immediately at Forest Hills Memorial Park in Burbank, California.
Autry is recognized in the entertainment industry for his talent, but more so for the way he transcended expectations along the way, from a Tioga, Texas country music singer to star of films and television, and later as producer of his own films and television programs. He is remembered as a kind, generous man whose greatest charm was that he remained a down-to-earth cowboy despite his success.
by Kelly M. Cross
Gene Autry's Career
Began playing the guitar and singing in a choir at age five; worked as a freight handler and roustabout, St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad, Chealsea, OK, 1922; sang on local radio show, beginning in 1928; signed with Victor Records, 1929; signed with American Record Corp. and performed on WLS Barndance, beginning in 1931; first film appearance, 1934; signed with Republic Studios, 1935; signed with Columbia Pictures, 1947; formed Gene Autry Productions, 1947; formed television production company Flying A. Productions, 1950; became owner of California Angels baseball team, 1960; opened Gene Autry Heritage Museum, Los Angeles, CA, 1988. Film appearances include In Ole Santa Fe, 1934; The Phantom Empire, Melody Trail, Sagebrush Troubadour, Tumblin' Tumbleweeds, and Singing Vagabond, all 1935; Boots and Saddles, 1937; Shooting High, Back in the Saddle, and Melody Ranch, all 1941; The Last Roundup, 1947; and Last of the Pony Riders, 1953. Military service: U.S. Army Air Corps, 1942-45.
Gene Autry's Awards
Inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, Country Music Association, 1969; inducted into Broadcasting Hall of Fame, National Association of Broadcasters, 1977; D.W. Griffith Career Award, 1991; Lifetime Achievement Award, Songwriter's Guild, 1991; inducted into Broadcast and Cable Hall of Fame, 1993; Horatio Alger Award, Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans; Hubert H. Humphrey Humanitarian Award; inducted into Texas Country Music Hall of Fame, 1998.
- Selected discography
- Greatest Hits (contains "You Are My Sunshine," "Lonely River," and "Blues Stay Away from Me"), Columbia, 1961.
- Golden Hits , RCA Victor, 1962.
- Great Hits , Harmony, 1965.
- The Essential Gene Autry (contains "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "Back in the Saddle Again"), Columbia, 1992.
- Dallas Morning News , October 3, 1998
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram , October 3, 1998
- Gannett News Service , October 2, 1998
- Independent-London , October 5, 1996