GENE AUTRY (By Shaun Mather)
Born Orvon Gene Autry, 29 September 1907, Tioga, Texas
King of the singing cowboys, Gene Autry was a multifaceted star of the big screen, radio, television and record. He cut over 300 songs and starred in 93 movies. He grew up in Tioga, Texas where he was taught to sing by his grand- father and offered further encouragement by his mother who taught him hymns and folk songs. He bought an $12 guitar from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue and by his mid-teens was a regular in all the town's cafes and school plays. His first job was working on the railroad for $35, followed by a better paying job as a telegraph operator. It was whilst doing this that he was heard in 1927 singing to himself. The eavesdropper was entertainer Will Rogers who told the youngster he should try his luck in New York. It was a year before Autry took the plunge, auditioning for RCA Victor. They advised him to forget the pop songs and come up with his own folk style.
He returned six months later and cut his first single, "My Dreaming of You"/"My Alabama Home," for Victor. A couple of weeks later he made a demo record for Columbia, doing a cover of Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 5". Victor were keen to sign him to an exclusive contract but he opted for the American Record Corporation after their general manager Art Sattherley persuaded him that he'd be better served as a big fish in a small pond, than a little one in a big sea.
In December 1929 he cut his first six sides for ARC taking in hillbilly, blues, country, yodels and cowboy ballads. His first hit was "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," which sold 30,000 copies within a month of its 1931 release. By the end of the year 500,000 had been sold, which prompted American Records to present him with a gold-plated copy of the record. They repeated the act when the song reached the million. It was an act that is now known as the Gold Record status. At this time he also led him to the National Barn Dance on WLS Chicago, where he performed as Oklahoma's Yodelling Cowboy.
The advent of talkies had hit the B Western's as most of their stars were good cowboys, but not so hot at the acting. The biggest star had been Ken Maynard, but great as he was as a trick rider and stuntman he couldn't sing. In an inspired move, producer Nat Levine added Autry to Maynard's 1934 western, In Old Santa Fe. He only sang one song but managed to steal the show.
Whilst Autry could sing, he couldn't really act, so instead of messing about, it was decided that he should just play the part of Gene Autry, a singing cowboy. (a ploy that was copied three decades later with Elvis Presley, the singing mechanic/tourist guide/doctor....) His films for the newly formed Republic Pictures were instant hits and he became one of the most popular film stars of the era. Biggies included Tumbling Tumbleweeds, Melody Trail, The Sagebrush Troubador, and The Singing Vagabond. Musically he was hitting with the title songs (see previous Elvis comment!) as well as non-film releases like 1938's "Back In The Saddle Again" and "Blueberry Hill" in 1940. He served in the military during World War II, but his career resumed at the top when he returned. Always an acute businessman, he branched out into television production and began buying up radio stations, a studio and his own production company.
His biggest pop hit came in 1949 with the unlikely, "Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer" (# 1, and charted again in December 1950, 1951 and 1952). A new version charted by Autry in December 1957 on Challenge, one of several record labels that he owned. It was his final hit. As with most country/western singers, the advent of rock 'n' roll signalled the end of their charting days and Autry was no different. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969.
Recommended listening: Millions of cheap compilations out there - some are even more than £2.99. Book: David Rothel, The Gene Autry Book. Revised edition. Empire, 1988. Several videos and DVD's are available.
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