(September 29, 1907 – October 2, 1998)
Orvon Grover Autry, better known as Gene
Autry, was an American performer who gained fame as
The Singing Cowboy on the radio, in movies and on television for more
than three decades beginning in the 1930s. Autry was also owner
of the Los Angeles/California Angels Major League Baseball team from
1961 to 1997, a television station and several radio stations in
his signature song was "Back in the Saddle Again", Autry is best known
today for his Christmas holiday songs, "Here Comes Santa Claus" (which
he wrote), "Frosty the Snowman", and his biggest hit, "Rudolph the
He is a member of both the Country Music and
Nashville Songwriters halls of fame, and is the only celebrity to have
five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Autry, the grandson of a Methodist preacher, was
born near Tioga, Texas. His parents, Delbert Autry and Elnora Ozment,
moved to Ravia, Oklahoma in the 1920s. He worked on his father's ranch
while at school. After leaving high school in 1925, Autry worked as a
telegrapher for the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway.
Talent with the guitar and his voice led to
performing at local dances.
While working as a telegrapher, Autry would sing
and accompany himself on the guitar to pass the lonely hours,
especially when he had the midnight shift. One night he got
encouragement to sing professionally from a customer, the famous
humorist and wit, Will Rogers, who had heard Autry singing.
As soon as he could collect money to travel, he
went to New York. He auditioned for Victor Records, at just about the
time (end of 1928) it became RCA Victor. According to Nathaniel
Shilkret, director of Light Music for Victor at the time, Autry asked
to speak to Shilkret when Autry found that he had been turned down.
Shilkret explained to Autry that he was turned down not because of his
voice, but because Victor had just made contracts with two similar
Autry left with a letter of introduction from
Shilkret and the advice to sing on radio to gain experience and to
come back in a year or two. In 1928 Autry was singing on Tulsa’s radio
station KVOO as "Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy," and the Victor archives
shows an October 9, 1929, entry stating that the vocal duet of Jimmie
Long and Gene Autry with two Hawaiian guitars, directed by L. L.
Watson, recorded “My Dreaming of You” (Matrix 56761) and “My Alabama”
Autry signed a recording deal with Columbia Records
in 1929. He worked in Chicago, Illinois, on the WLS-AM radio show
National Barn Dance for four years, and with his own show, where he
met singer-songwriter Smiley Burnette. In his early recording career,
Autry covered various genres, including a labor song, "The Death of
Mother Jones" in 1931.
Autry also recorded many "hillbilly"-style records
in 1930 and 1931 in New York City, which were certainly different in
style and content from his later recordings. These were much closer in
style to the Prairie Ramblers or Dick Justice, and included the "Do
Right Daddy Blues" and "Black Bottom Blues", both similar to "Deep
Elem Blues". These late-Prohibition era songs deal with bootlegging,
corrupt police, and women whose occupation was certainly vice. These
recordings are generally not heard today, but are available on
European import labels, such as JSP Records.
His first hit was in 1932 with "That Silver-Haired
Daddy Of Mine", a duet with fellow railroad man, Jimmy Long, which was
parodied by Sesame Street as "that furry blue mommy of mine"
Autry also sang the classic Ray Whitley hit "Back
In The Saddle Again," as well as many Christmas holiday songs
including "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," his own composition "Here
Comes Santa Claus", "Frosty the Snowman", and his biggest hit,
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".
Autry was the original owner of Challenge Records.
The label's biggest hit was "Tequila" by The Champs in 1958, which
started the rock-and-roll instrumental craze of the late 1950s and
early 1960s. He sold the label soon after, but the maroon and later
green label has the "GA" in a shield above the label name.
Autry made 640 recordings, including more than 300
songs written or co-written by him. His records sold more than 100
million copies and he has more than a dozen gold and platinum records,
including the first record ever certified gold.
Discovered by film producer Nat Levine in 1934,
Autry and Burnette made their film debut for Mascot Pictures Corp. in
In Old Santa Fe as part of a singing cowboy quartet; he was then given
the starring role by Levine in 1935 in the 12-part serial The Phantom
Empire. Shortly thereafter, Mascot was absorbed by the newly-formed
Republic Pictures Corp., and Autry went along to make a further 44
films up to 1940, all B Westerns in which he played under his own
name, rode his horse Champion, had Burnette as his regular sidekick,
and had many opportunities to sing in each film.
Pat Buttram was picked by Gene Autry, recently
returned from his World War II service in the Army Air Force, to work
with him. Buttram would co-star with Gene Autry in more than 40 films,
and in over 100 episodes of Autry's television show
In the Motion Picture Herald Top Ten Money-Making
Western Stars poll, Autry was listed every year from 1936 to 1942 and
1946 to 1954 (he was serving in the US Army Air Corps 1943–45),
holding first place 1937 to 1942, and second place (after Roy Rogers)
1947 to 1954. He appeared in the similar Box Office poll from 1936 to
1955, holding first place from 1936 to 1942 and second place (after
Rogers) from 1943 to 1952 While these two polls are really an
indication only of the popularity of series stars, Autry also appeared
in the Top Ten Money Makers Poll of all films from 1940 to 1942, His
Gene Autry Flying "A" Ranch Rodeo show debuted in 1940.
Gene Autry was the first of the singing cowboys in
films, succeeded as the top star by Roy Rogers when he served in World
War II. Autry briefly returned to Republic after the war to finish out
his contract, which had been suspended for the duration of his
military service and which he had tried to have declared void after
his discharge. He appeared in 1951 in the film Texans Never Cry, with
a role for newcomer Mary Castle. After 1951 he formed his own
production company to make Westerns under his own control, which
continued the 1947 distribution agreement with Columbia Pictures.
Autry purchased the 110 acre Monogram Movie Ranch
in 1953, located in Placerita Canyon near Newhall, California in the
northern San Gabriel Mountains foothills. He renamed it the Melody
Ranch after his movie Melody Ranch. Autry then sold 98 acres of the
property, most of the original ranch. The Western town, adobes, and
ranch cabin sets and open land for location shooting were retained as
a movie ranch on 12 acres. A decade after he purchased Melody Ranch, a
brushfire swept through in August 1962, destroying most of the
original standing sets. However, the devastated landscape did prove
useful for productions such as Combat!. A complete adobe ranch
survived at the northeast section of the ranch.
In 1990, after his favorite horse Champion, who
lived in retirement there died, Autry put the remaining 12 acre ranch
up for sale. It is now known as the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio
and Melody Ranch Studios on 22 acres. The ranch has Melody Ranch
Museum open year-round; and one weekend a year the entire ranch is
open to the public during the Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival, another
legacy of Autry's multi-talents.
From 1940 to 1956, Autry had a huge hit with a
weekly show on CBS Radio, Gene Autry's Melody Ranch. His horse,
Champion, also had a CBS-TV and Mutual radio series, The Adventures of
Champion. He created the Cowboy Code, or Cowboy Commandments, in
response to his young radio listeners aspiring to emulate him. Under
his code, the Cowboy must:
- Never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair
- Never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him;
- Always tell the truth;
- Be gentle with children, the elderly and animals;
- Not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant
- Help people in distress;
- Be a good worker;
- Keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal
- Respect women, parents and his nation's laws;
- Be a patriot.
Beginning in 1950, he produced and starred in his
own television show on CBS, and made several appearances on ABC-TV's
Jubilee USA in the late 1950s.
Autry served as a C-47 Skytrain pilot in the United
States Army Air Forces, with the rank of flight officer in the Air
Transport Command during World War II flying dangerous missions over
the Himalayas, nicknamed the Hump, between Burma and China.
Few are aware of Autry's longtime involvement in
professional rodeo. In 1942 Autry, at the height of his screen
popularity, had a string of rodeo stock based in Ardmore, Oklahoma. A
year later he became a partner in the World Championship Rodeo
Company, which furnished livestock for many of the country’s major
In 1954 he acquired Montana’s top bucking string
from the estate of Leo J. Cremer, Sr. and put Canadian saddle bronc
riding champion Harry Knight in charge of the operation. A merger with
the World Championship Rodeo Company in 1956 made Autry the sole
owner. He moved the entire company to a 24,000-acre ranch near Fowler,
Colorado, with Knight as the working partner in the operation.
For the next 12 years they provided livestock for
most of the major rodeos in Texas, Colorado, Montana and Nebraska.
When the company was sold in 1968, both men continued to be active in
rodeo. For his work as a livestock contractor, Autry was inducted into
the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's ProRodeo Hall of Fame in
Autry retired from show business in 1964, having
made almost 100 films up to 1955, and over 600 records. He was elected
to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969, and to the Nashville
Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. After retiring, he invested widely
and in real estate, radio, and television, including the purchase from
dying Republic Pictures the rights for films he had made for the
In 1952, Autry bought the old Monogram Ranch in
Placerita Canyon (Newhall-Santa Clarita, California) and renamed it
Melody Ranch. Numerous "B" Westerns and TV shows were shot there
during Autry's ownership, including the initial years of Gunsmoke with
Melody Ranch burned down in 1962, dashing Autry's
plans to turn it into a museum. According to a published story by
Autry, the fire caused him to turn his attention to Griffith Park,
where he would build his Museum of Western Heritage (now known as the
Autry National Center).
Melody Ranch came back to life after 1991, when it
was purchased by the Veluzat family and rebuilt. It survives as a
movie location today as well as the home of the City of Santa
Clarita's annual Cowboy Festival, where Autry's legacy takes center
In the 1950s, Autry had been a minority owner of
the minor-league Hollywood Stars. In 1960, when Major League Baseball
announced plans to add an expansion team in Los Angeles, Autry—who had
once declined an opportunity to play in the minor leagues—expressed an
interest in acquiring the radio broadcast rights to the team's games.
Baseball executives were so impressed by his approach that he was
persuaded to become the owner of the franchise rather than simply its
broadcast partner. The team, initially called the Los Angeles Angels
upon its 1961 debut, moved to suburban Anaheim in 1966, and was
re-named the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels from 1997
until 2005, when it became the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Autry served as vice president of the American
League from 1983 until his death. In 1995 he sold a quarter share of
the team to The Walt Disney Company, and a controlling interest the
following year, with the remaining share to be transferred after his
death. Earlier, in 1982, he sold Los Angeles television station KTLA
for $245 million. He also sold several radio stations
he owned, including KSFO in San Francisco, KMPC in Los Angeles, KOGO
in San Diego, and other stations in the Golden West radio network.
The number 26 (as in 26th man) was retired by the
Angels in Autry's honor. The chosen number reflected that baseball's
rosters are 25-man strong, so Autry's unflagging support for his team
made him the 26th member.
Included for many years on Forbes magazine's list
of the 400 richest Americans, he slipped to their "near miss" category
in 1995 with an estimated net worth of $320 million. Gene Autry died
of lymphoma 3 days after his 91st birthday at his home in Studio City,
California and is interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills
Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. Forest Lawn Memorial Park
(Hollywood Hills), Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, Plot:
Sheltering Hills section, Grave 1048, just in front of one of the
His death on October 2, 1998 came fewer than three
months after the death of another celebrated cowboy of the silver
screen, radio, and TV, Roy Rogers.
In 1932 he married Ina May Spivey (who died in
1980), who was the niece of Jimmy Long. In 1981 he married Jacqueline
Ellam, who had been his banker. He had no children by either marriage.
In 1972, he was inducted into the Western
Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage
Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Autry was a life member of the
Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Burbank Lodge No. 1497. His
1976 autobiography, co-written by Mickey Herskowitz, was titled Back
in the Saddle Again after his 1939 hit and signature tune. He is also
featured year after year, on radio and "shopping mall music" at the
holiday season, by his recording of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer".
"Rudolph" became the first #1 hit of the 1950s. CMT in 2003 ranked him
#38 in CMT's 40 Greatest Men of Country Music.
When the Anaheim Angels won their first World
Series in 2002, much of the championship was dedicated to him. The
interchange of Interstate 5 and State Route 134, located near the
Autry National Center in Los Angeles, is signed as the "Gene Autry
Memorial Interchange." In 2007, he became a charter member of the
Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana.
Johnny Cash recorded a song in 1978 about Autry
called "Who is Gene Autry." Cash also got Autry to sign his famous
black Martin D-35 guitar, which he plays in the video for "Hurt".
Autry was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in
2003. In 2004, the Starz Entertainment Corporation joined forces with
the Autry estate to restore all of his films, which have been shown on
Starz's Encore Western Channel on cable television on a regular basis
to date since.
Autry is the only celebrity to have five stars on
the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one in each of the five categories
maintained by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
The Museum of the American West in Los Angeles'
Griffith Park was founded in 1988 as the Gene Autry Western Heritage
Museum, featuring much of his collection of Western art and
memorabilia. Its mission is to preserve everything related to the
"mythic aspects" of the American "old West" from true historical
lifestyles to the 70-year saga of the Hollywood Western movie genre.