The Singing Cowboy
Gene on Champion
Gene Autry - succeeded at just about anything he undertook: radio, records, songwriting, movies, TV, real estate and business.
Known as 'America's Favorite Singing Cowboy', he is the only entertainer to have five stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, one each for radio, records, film, television and live theatrical performance. He appeared in 93 feature films and made 635 recordings. His records have 'gone gold' more than a dozen times; and Gene's beloved Christmas song 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949)' remains the second best selling single of all time, with sales totaling more than 30 million.
Just who is this Texas singing cowboy and how did he climb to such a lofty perch?
Orvon Gene Autry was born Sept. 29, 1907, in Tioga, Texas, the son of an itinerant preacher. He grew up in the small Oklahoma town of Ravia. Gene bought his first guitar at the age of 12 for $8, and taught himself to play. After graduating from high school he worked as a telegrapher for St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad.
While he was singing and playing in the office one night, Gene was discovered by the great cowboy humorist Will Rogers. Rogers suggested that Gene go to Hollywood were he could make some money singing in the movies. Years later, in and interview, Gene added that the next time he saw Will Rogers was in Hollywood, and according to Gene, Will just nodded and said, "I see you made it, kid."
In 1928 he began singing on KVOO a local radio station in Tulsa as "Oklahoma"s Yodeling Cowboy." He gained a popular following, and in 1929 was given a recording contract with Columbia Records. Soon after, he began performing on the “National Barn Dance” for radio station WLS in Chicago. His first hit record came in 1931 with "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine", the first record ever certified gold for having sold more than a million copies.
Then in 1934, Western singer Gene Autry went to Hollywood. He couldn't act, he couldn't ride, he couldn't rope, and he couldn't shoot. But that didn't prevent him from becoming the screen's most popular cowboy star within just a few years, and his personal success built the fortune of his home studio, Republic.
Gene made his film debut as a dude ranch cowboy singer in the Ken Maynard film "In Old Santa Fe". By 1937 he was America's Favorite Cowboy, voted the Number 1 Western Star by the theater exhibitors of America. In 1940 the theater exhibitors voted Autry the fourth biggest box office attraction, behind Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy.
Gene defined the B-western of the '30s and '40s. Autry remained in first or second place among cowboy stars in terms of box office draw until he retired from motion pictures in 1953.
During World War II, Autry enlisted for service and served his country as Sgt. Gene Autry with the Air Transport Command. From 1943 until 1945, he ferried fuel, ammunition, and arms in the China-Burma-India theater; flying the hazardous air route over the Himalayas, known as “The Hump”.
When the war ended, Autry was assigned to Special Services, where he toured with a USO troupe in the South Pacific before resuming his movie career in 1946.
After his wartime service, Autry returned to Republic pictures, but in 1947 went over to Columbia, where he made several dozen musical Westerns. Always a man of vision, Autry realized that the days of the B-Western were numbered, and in 1950 he became one of the first major movie stars to move into television.
For the next five years, he produced and starred in 91 half-hour episodes of "The Gene Autry Show", as well as producing such popular TV series as "Annie Oakley", "The Range Rider", "Buffalo Bill Jr", "The Adventures of Champion", as well as the first 39 episodes of "Death Valley Days".
Autry’s popularity was apparent during his personal appearance tours. The first performer to sell out Madison Square Garden, his concert and rodeo appearances throughout the United States and Europe are legendary and served as a model for other performers. Autry did two shows a day, seven days a week, for 65 to 85 days at a stretch.
He carried his love for entertaining and sharp business sense into broadcasting, where, under the Golden West Broadcasters banner, he owned such award-winning stations as KMPC radio and KTLA Television in Los Angeles as well as other stations across the country.
Then in 1956 Autry hung up his performing spurs in 1956, but continued to own four radio stations, the Gene Autry Hotel in Palm Springs, and several other properties. In 1961 Gene Autry's great love of baseball prompted him to purchase the American League's California Angels. Long active in Major League Baseball, Autry held the title of Vice President of the American League until his death.
Gene Autry, America's Favorite Singing Cowboy, passed away at his home in Studio City, California on October 2, 1998, after a long illness. He was 91 years old.
Among the many honors and awards Autry received were:
- Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969.
- Inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1972.
- Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Achievement in Arts Foundation.
- Inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
- He received the Songwriters' Guild Life Achievement Award.
- Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame.
- He recieved the Hubert Humphrey Humanitarian of the Year Award.
- He was a 33rd Degree Mason and given the prestigious award of the Grand Cross of the Court of Honor.
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