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America's First Singing Cowboy
Orvon Gene Autry was born on a small cattle and grain farm in Tioga, Texas, on September 29, 1907; his family moved to Ravia, Oklahoma, when he was about four years old. He bought his first guitar from a mail-order catalog when he was eight years old. At the age of 16 he went to work as a baggage handler at the Ravia railroad depot, where he learned telegraphy from the station master. He subsequently became a vacation relief telegrapher for the Frisco Railroad at stops from St. Louis to southern Oklahoma. One night in Chelsea, Oklahoma, when he was 17, a "farmer-looking guy" came into the office with pages for Autry to send. The gentleman then spotted Autry's guitar and asked the young man to play for him. Liking what he heard, the gentleman suggested that Autry try his hand in radio. The man who Autry played for turned out to be none other than the famous cowboy humorist Will Rogers.
In 1927, after being turned down by almost every radio station in New York City, Autry got a job as Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy on station KVOO in Tulsa. In 1928, he returned to New York, where he recorded That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine, a song he co-wrote with Jimmy Long, a fellow railroad worker. Released in 1931, the song sold 30,000 copies within a month, and by the end of a year 500,000 had been sold. American Records marked the occasion with the public presentation of a gold-plated copy of the record, making Autry the first-ever person to receive a gold record for selling 500,000 copies of a record. He received a second gold record when sales later broke one million, making him also the first-ever person to have a record certified gold for having sold a million copies.
Throughout his performing career, Autry made 635 recordings, more than 300 of which he wrote or co-wrote. His records have sold more than 60 million copies and brought him more than a dozen gold records. Two of his recordings -- the Christmas classic Here Comes Santa Claus (1947) and the children's song Peter Cottontail (1950) -- went platinum (for more than two million copies sold), while Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949) remains the second best selling single of all time (behind Bing Crosby's White Christmas), with sales totaling more than 30 million.
In 1934, Autry and his new wife Ina Mae Spivey (niece of Jimmy Long), moved to Hollywood. That same year he made his film debut as a dude ranch cowboy singer in the Ken Maynard western In Old Santa Fe. Although he only sang one song in the film, the idea of a singing cowboy hero caught on with producers at Republic Pictures, which specialized in low-budget westerns and serials.
In 1935, Autry, beginning with Tumbling Tumbleweeds, his first starring role, made eight hour-long movies for the Saturday afternoon "kiddie trade." 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. He remained in first or second place among cowboy stars in terms of box office draw until he retired from motion pictures in 1953; his principal rival throughout this period was Roy Rogers.
Autry appeared in a total of 93 feature films, many of which were based on his hit records, including: South of the Border (1939), Mexicali Rose (1939), Back in the Saddle (1941), The Last Round-Up (1947), and Strawberry Rose (1948).
In addition to his movie and recording successes, Autry's Melody Ranch was heard weekly over the CBS Radio Network between 1940 and 1956.
From 1943 until 1945, during World War II, he served as a flight officer with the Air Transport Command, flying cargo planes in the China-Burma-India Theater.
In 1950, Autry became one of the first major movie stars to move into television. Over the next five years he produced and starred in 91 half-hour episodes of The Gene Autry Show. He also produced other popular television series, including Annie Oakley, The Range Rider, Buffalo Bill Jr., and The Adventures of Champion. In the late 1980's, Autry and his former movie sidekick Pat Buttram hosted 93 episodes of Melody Ranch Theatre on The Nashville Network.
After retiring from show business Autry became a successful businessman, owning hotels, broadcasting stations, and oil wells. In 1961, he purchased the American League's California Angels baseball team, and held the title of Vice-President of the American League until his death.
In November 1988, a long-cherished dream came true when the Autry Museum of Western Heritage opened in Los Angeles. Now acclaimed as one of the foremost museums of the American West, the museum houses important collections of art, artifacts, and documents.
Autry 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 (including rodeo). Among the many hundreds of other honors and awards Autry received are: the American Academy of Achievement Award; the Los Angeles Area Governor's Emmy from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences; the Board of Directors Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Achievement in Arts Foundation; the Songwriters' Guild Life Achievement Award; the Hubert Humphrey Humanitarian of the Year Award; a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Composers Artists and Producers; and, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, and the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Gene Autry died October 2, 1998.
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This page was last updated on 04/25/2017.