Gene Autry was America's first singing cowboy. He was one of the best-known country and western singers in records, movies, radio, and on television from the early 1930s until the mid-1950s. With his horse Champion and his comic sidekick Smiley Burnette, he appeared in dozens of films during the 1930s and 1940s. During the '50s and '60s, he became a successful businessman, purchasing several radio and television stations. In 1961, he became the owner of an expansion team that made its debut as the Los Angeles Angels.
Singing and strumming
Born Orvon Gene Autry on September 29, 1908, to Delbert and Elnora Autry, poor tenant farmers in Tioga, Texas, Gene was the eldest of four children. The grandson of a minister, Autry was taught to sing as a child so that he could perform in the church choir and other local venues. Life on the farm was hard. Gene had to learn to ride horses and work the fields with his father at an early age. His love of music arose from listening to cowboy songs, and at age 12 he bought his first guitar, from a Sears and Roebuck catalog, for $8 he had saved from baling hay on his uncle’s farm. His interest in music was encouraged by his mother, who taught him hymns and folk songs.
Autry graduated from Ravia Community School in 1924, and spent a few months working for a traveling medicine show before finding work as a telegraph operator for the Frisco Railroad in Chelsea, Oklahoma. Autry took his guitar to work and strummed when things were slow. One night, a man came in to send a telegraph, and was impressed by what he heard. The man turned out to be none other than Will Rogers. He motioned to Autry to keep playing, and after hearing a few songs, suggested that he look for a job in radio. After trying unsuccessfully to find work in New York, Autry returned to Oklahoma where he appeared on KVOO Tulsa as the “Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy."
A recording, film, and TV career
In 1929, Autry made his first RCA Victor recording of “My Dreaming of You" and “My Alabama Home," followed by other recordings for ARC Records. In 1931, he became a featured artist on the National Barn Dance. Before long, Autry Roundup guitars and songbooks were being sold by Sears. In late 1931, Autry recorded his first million-selling record, “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine," which he recorded as a duet with co-writer Jimmy Long. The following year, Autry married Ina May Spivey, Long’s niece. The couple, who had no children, remained married until her death in 1980.
In 1934, Autry was discovered by film producer Nat Levine. Autry and his sidekick Burnette made their film debut in the movie “In Old Santa Fe," as part of a singing-cowboy quartet. In 1935, Levine gave Gene the starring role in a 12-part serial titled “The Phantom Empire." Autry became a top box-office star. From 1937 to 1942, he was rated in a survey of theater owners as one of the top 10 box-office attractions in the country, a string that was broken only when he enlisted in the army during World War II.
In January 1940, Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show, sponsored by the Wrigley Gum Company, made its first appearance on CBS, and soon became a national institution with thousands of listeners. From 1940 until 1956, the show featured other famous singers of the day, along with Gene singing his hits. As a result, Autry built a house in the San Fernando Valley, called Melody Ranch. It was from that ranch in 1942 that he was sworn into the Army Air Force as a
technical sergeant, live on his Melody Ranch Radio program.
Having previously earned a private pilot's license, Sergeant Autry decided to become a flight officer. Following basic training at the Santa Ana Air Force Base, and serving at Luke Field, Thunderbird Field, and Phoenix Airport, he was accepted for flight training at Love Field in Dallas. On June 21, 1944, Autry won his wings and was promoted to Flight Officer. He was attached to the 91st Ferrying Squadron of the 555th Army Air Base Unit, Air Transport Command, at Love Field. Flight Officer Autry served in that squadron from July 1942 to October 1945. While in the service, he continued to perform. He was honorably discharged in 1946.
Business and baseball
In addition to his radio show and films, Autry toured extensively with his stage show, which featured roping, Indian dancers, comedy skits, trick riding and horse tricks performed by Autry’s horse Champion. He was so famous and respected that the small town of Berwyn Oklahoma officially changed its name to Gene Autry, Oklahoma.
In the mid 1950s, Autry’s singing and acting career slowed, owing to rock 'n roll and rhythm and blues luring away younger listeners, but he was able to spend more time with his other business interests. He purchased numerous radio and television stations, and between 1950 and 1956, produced 91 episodes of the Gene Autry Show for CBS TV. His company also produced many other television series, including “The Range Rider" and “The Adventures of Champion."
In 1960, Major League Baseball announced plans to add an expansion team in Los Angeles, and Autry, who had once declined an opportunity to play in the minor leagues, was persuaded to become the franchise owner. The team, initially called the Los Angles Angels, moved to Anaheim in 1966 and became known as the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels in 1997. Today they are called the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Autry married his second wife, Jackie, in 1981, and remained married to her until his death in 1998 at the age of 91. His long career produced 300 songs cut between 1929 and 1964, including nine gold records and one platinum, and 93 movies. Most consider Autry to be country music’s first genuine multimedia star.
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