singing cowboy was born Orvon Gene Autry on September 29, 1907 to Delbert and
Elnora Ozmont Autry. His love for music was inherited from his grandfather, who
taught Autry to sing when he was five years old. His singing was encouraged by
his mother who sang hymns and folk songs to him and bought him his first guitar
at the age of 12. At 15 he had already played his music in school plays and at a
local café in his small home town of Tioga, Texas.
In 1929 the
young Autry took job in Chelsea, Oklahoma, as a telegraph operator. One evening
while playing his guitar to pass time, Autry was overheard by Will Rogers, who
had come in to send a telegraph. After asking him to play another song, Rogers
told Autry he should move to New York and pursue a singing career. A year later
he was in New York city auditioning for RCA-Victor. He was told he needed to
find his own style of music. Six months later a more experienced Autry was back
at RCA recording his first record “My Dreaming of You/My Alabama Home”.
His music lead him to the radio when his break-through record "That Silver
Haired Daddy of Mine" sales broke one million.
Gene fell in
love and married Ina Spivey on April 1, 1932. Although they had an April fools
wedding, their marriage proved not to be joke. Ina Autry was a constant source
of encouragement to Gene. It was Ina who persuaded Gene to give Hollywood a try
when had doubts.
By 1934 the
western movie industry was declining because audiences were enjoying the sound
of radio and wanted dialog in their movies as well. Mascot Pictures joined
forces with RCA in the hopes of using a professional singer as a cowboy in their
Autry was called
for a screen test in Hollywood and was immediately offered a small role in the
western In Old Sante Fe. Although his small role consisted of one scene,
his scene became the most popular one in the movie. He was then cast in a small
supporting role in the Mystery Mountain series.
staring role was in a 12 chapter serial, The Phantom Empire. He played
himself, Gene Autry, a lovable cowboy and radio host. His music fan base
followed him to the movies. By 1935 he was making 8-10 films a year at $5000 a
picture. He was a blockbuster movie star, voted fourth behind Mickey Rooney,
Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. He remained on top in the movie and music
industries until he joined the US Army Air Corps, at the request of the
Pentagon, during his live Melody Ranch radio broadcast on July 26, 1942.
During World War II he became Sergeant Gene Autry. He ferried ammunition, arms
and fuel in the China-India-Burma theater of war and flew over the Himalayas in
a hazardous air route. When the war ended he was assigned to special services
where he toured with the USO Troupe in the South Pacific. It was rumored that
Gene was the only US serviceman allowed to wear cowboy boots on duty.
In 1946 Autry
was back in the saddle again as he returned to both his passions. Although the
movie industry had weakened due to the war, his music career was thriving.
His 1947 recording of "Here Comes Santa Claus" went platinum and his 1949
recording of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" remains the second all-time
best selling Christmas single, selling more than 30 million copies.
In 1950 Autry
became the first major movie star to use the television medium. From 1950-1955
he produced and starred in 91 episodes of The Gene Autry Show for CBS.
He began producing such popular TV series as The Range Rider, Annie
Oakley, Buffalo Bill Jr., and The Adventures of Champion.
By the 1950's
Autry’s music career began to diminish as Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll became
the new music fad among young listeners. Gene Autry left his movie and music
career behind as he turned his passion to the corporate world. His proudest
endeavor was his one million dollar purchase of the California Angels, a Major
League baseball expansion team.
Ina, past away in early 1980. In December of the same year Jackie
acquaintance of Genes, approached him to pay her condolences over the loss of
his wife. Jackie’s interest in sports and her adventurous nature interested
Gene. They immediately began a courtship and were married on July 19th,
1981. In 1988 they opened the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, now acclaimed as
one of the finest museums in the west. Gene and Jackie shared seventeen happy
years together until his death on October 2, 1998.
Gene Autry is
the only entertainer to have 5 stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, one each for,
movies, radio, records, television and live performances. He was the first
person to sell out Madison Square Garden and he blessed his fans with 9 gold
records, 1 platinum record and 95 movies. Gene Autry is a beloved American
legend and his legacy will forever live on at his museum and in the hearts of
all his fans.
Lisa Smith is a freelance writer from the
state of Indiana.