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Gene Autry, America's 'Public Cowboy No. 1'

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Gene Autry, America's 'Public Cowboy No. 1'

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Gene Autry, America's 'Public Cowboy No. 1'

Gene Autry, America's 'Public Cowboy No. 1'

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Public Cowboy No. 1
Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life And Times Of Gene Autry
By Holly George-Warren
Paperback, 480 pages
Oxford University Press, USA
List Price: $17.95

Read An Excerpt

In the 1930s, Gene Autry was working as a "singing cowboy" on the Chicago radio show National Barn Dance when he caught Hollywood's attention.

"He got an audition and got a bit part in [In Old Santa Fe], a Western in 1934, and unbelievably the ideas that came from this Western ... pretty much started the template of the musical Western," Autry biographer Holly George-Warren tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Audiences just loved them — they had the music, they had the comedy and, of course, the action and those great fancy cowboy outfits, too."

In Public Cowboy No. 1, George-Warren traces Autry's life as he made his way from rural ranches in Texas and Oklahoma to one of Hollywood's most prolific acting careers. Autry appeared in more than 90 movies altogether, including 40-plus between the years of 1934 and 1940. After a break to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II, he returned to Hollywood, where he hosted his weekly radio series Gene Autry's Melody Ranch, recorded songs under the Columbia label, made frequent public appearances and continued his film career, sometimes making as many as seven or eight films in a calendar year.

"Before James Brown and Elvis Presley, I think Gene Autry was the hardest-working man in show business," George-Warren says.

"Later on, he was also the first of the Western film stars to get on TV. He started his production company in 1950 and was doing a weekly TV show as well."

From Oklahoma To Hollywood

Autry's career started far away from show business. As a young man, he worked for the Frisco Railroad in Oklahoma as a telegrapher, where he was commended for his telegraphy expertise. As a hobby, he began hosting a weekly show on the radio and performing on other shows, which built his confidence and prompted him to start recording songs — at the height of the Great Depression.

Holly George-Warren is the author of several books about the music industry, including The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: The First 25 Years, Cowboy! How Hollywood Invented the Wild West and Punk 365. Mark Loete/courtesy of the author hide caption

toggle caption Mark Loete/courtesy of the author

Holly George-Warren is the author of several books about the music industry, including The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: The First 25 Years, Cowboy! How Hollywood Invented the Wild West and Punk 365.

Mark Loete/courtesy of the author

"It was October of 1929 when he went to New York to launch his singing career and record his first records — not the most auspicious time," says George-Warren. "It was just one of those perfect-timing things, because Gene had this 'everyman' quality to him ... and was a real mimic ... so Gene doing [covers of bigger stars] started selling like hotcakes because people could order them in rural areas, and he built up a big audience that way."

By the time Autry made his way to Chicago in 1932 to star in Radio Barn Dance, he had established his Western-themed brand. He began dressing in cowboy outfits and introducing himself as a "cowboy" on the airwaves.

"He started emphasizing the beauty of being a cowboy and the romanticism of being a cowboy, and by 1933 he had begun recording [his own] cowboy songs," George-Warren says. "But he was not an expert horseman. It's kind of ironic — when he made it out to the movies, he had to take a lot of lessons and really train to learn how to be good on horseback."

See More Gene Autry

On Friday July 8, TCM will play several Gene Autry Western musicals back-to-back. The Encore Western channel also shows Gene Autry Westerns every Sunday at noon.

Autry's persona — and his affinity for Western-style clothes — had a huge impact on the history of country music. "Prior to his popularity, for example, most of the music considered country or country-western was labeled 'hillbilly music,' " George-Warren says. "When Gene came along singing country songs for a national audience in the movies beginning in 1935, he was dressed up as a cowboy. And it had this much more heroic stature than, say, the country bumpkin that country music was associated with [prior to that]."

Autry retired from show business in the early 1960s. He was elected to both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and remains the only celebrity to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (for motion pictures, radio, recording, television and live theater). He died of lymphoma at age 91 in 1988, shortly after George-Warren met him to write a New York Times profile.

"It was so incredible," she says. "He was 88 years old, and he still had that charisma, even though he was an elderly guy. He was funny, he was charming. He definitely liked the ladies. I have a penchant for Western cowboy gear myself, and I was decked out in my fanciest cowgirl outfit with my fanciest boots that day when I went to meet him, and he was quite taken by my outfit and even said, 'Honey, did you bring a Kodak with you so we can get some pictures?' and gave me tips on how to keep my boots all shiny. I can see why so many people loved the guy."

Excerpt: 'Public Cowboy No. 1'

Public Cowboy No. 1 by Holly George-Warren
Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life And Times Of George Autry
By Holly George-Warren
Paperback, 480 pages
Oxford University Press, USA
List Price: $17.95

Introduction

In 1994, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson spent four days together in a Los Angeles studio making what would be their third and final album as the Highwaymen. Among their repertoire of outlaw songs and road ballads, they launched into an old favorite: Gene Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again." These four icons of country music, born during the Great Depression, had grown up with Gene Autry as their hero. He was their Public Cowboy No. 1. "I saw him in the movies when I was five years old," Johnny Cash wrote in 1977, "and haven't stopped loving him and his kind of movieland dreams. More than that, I took part of Gene Autry home with me in my heart and sang it out in the cotton fields, songs like 'Be Honest With Me,' [and 'The] Last Round-Up' . . ." Serving as a road map out of rural poverty for Cash — and for so many other future artists — Gene Autry shone as the singing cowboy star whose radio programs, recordings, and movies in the 1930s and '40s made him one of America's most celebrated entertainers.

For Highwaymen producer Don Was, a visit one day from eighty-six-year-old Gene Autry to the sessions "was very revealing." Over the course of their careers, according to Was, each of the Highwaymen had "adopted variations on the cowboy persona, and that's the guy they got it from." Captured in a 2006 documentary, American Revolutions: The Highwaymen, Cash, Nelson, Jennings, and Kristofferson — then in their fifties and sixties — "turned into little kids," Was related. "It was as if John Lennon came to my session. . . . Gene Autry is just sitting there with four of the most intimidating tough guys ever, and they're marshmallows next to him." As children, each of the Highwaymen, like so many others, had gone to Gene Autry movies on Saturday afternoons, listened to his music on the radio, and learned to play guitar on a Gene Autry Roundup Guitar ordered from the Sears catalogue. They, just like millions of other Americans who were born between the 1920s and the 1940s, bought his records and went to see him at rodeos, city auditoriums, and county fairs. Again, in the words of the Man in Black, "Reflecting upon . . . the great people I have known, as an All-American image of goodness, justice, good over bad, nothing or no one comes closer than Gene Autry."

Who was this man that exerted such an influence over Cash, his fellow Highwaymen, and countless others who experienced the Autry phenomenon from the thirties into the fifties? Born Orvon Grover Autry in 1907, he was a second-generation Texan. Both his maternal and paternal grandparents were among the frontierspeople who left the South after the Civil War and traveled west. Gene Autry embraced the tools of the twentieth century to make his way in the world — cutting phonograph records, broadcasting over the radio, appearing in motion pictures and, later, television — yet he found stardom by reinventing the saga of the cowboy and the West through his music and image. Growing up on the final vestiges of nineteenth-century pop culture — minstrel shows, dime novels, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West — he came of age during the heyday of vaudeville, whose stars Al Jolson, Gene Austin, and Will Rogers had profoundly influenced him. Gene Autry merged old sensibilities with new ideas to create a persona that bridged the gap between the two centuries. His ingenuity, ambition, and chameleonic artistry enabled him to develop further by adapting the sonics of yodeling bluesman Jimmie Rodgers and visuals of cowboy star Tom Mix.

As a recording artist, Autry evolved from a hillbilly-style Rodgers soundalike to the trend-setting crooner of cowboy songs to the progenitor of Yuletide perennial "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to children's balladeer. Between 1929 and the early 1960s, he made some 640 recordings, totaling sales of more than 100 million copies. Gene Autry's vocal and visual approach, with his eyecatching Western wear, shaped the sound and look of early country music and helped it grow from a regional favorite to a national sensation. After Autry's musical Westerns began screening in theaters across the country, the companion discs of songs featured in the movies became strong sellers nationwide. Eventually, the label "hillbilly music" was displaced by "country & western."

First finding local fame as the Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy on Tulsa radio, Autry attracted a larger audience as star of Chicago's WLS National Barn Dance. In Hollywood, his singing cowboy character successfully made the transition to film, where Autry and Republic Pictures created the prototype of the musical B-Western genre in the mid-1930s. His reassuring presence and unassuming boyishness provided a salve to audiences struggling with the Great Depression. Beginning with Tumbling Tumbleweeds in 1935, Autry's movies reinvigorated the Western with the addition of his country songcraft to action-packed morality plays. In those simpler times, good versus evil was easily delineated. He nearly always played himself — as Johnny Cash recalled, "a handsome man on a fine stallion, riding the bad trails of this land, righting wrongs, turning good for bad, smiling through with the assurance that justice will prevail."

None of the ninety-three Gene Autry pictures ever rose to the budgetary or artistic levels of a John Ford Western, yet he was more popular than John Wayne for nearly a decade. Voted the top Western star for six years straight, Autry was named the fourth most popular of all box-office stars in America by exhibitors in 1940. His movies played in every small town in the country, and he relentlessly toured the nation throughout the thirties, forties, and fifties. His Gene Autry Flying A Rodeo imbued the sport with glamour, giving it an enduring appeal and spreading its popularity eastward. His status as an entertainer brought him into the political sphere as early as the mid-1930s. He became the friend of several U.S. presidents — from Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Even John F. Kennedy invited him to the White House for "an exchange of ideas."

In 1950 Autry was the first movie star to create his own production company and play the lead in a television series, followed by a line of TV programming, including The Range Rider, Death Valley Days, and Annie Oakley — the first TV Western to star a woman. Following the trail blazed by his successful programs, Westerns came to monopolize the small screen in the 1950s and '60s. As a merchandising entrepreneur, he was one of the first cowboy icons to license his name and image to hundreds of products, beginning in the 1930s. During the cowboy craze of the 1950s, Autry-licensed goods ranged from comic books to bedspreads to breakfast cereal.

After Autry enlisted and served in World War II, he began to focus more on business investments and undertook a series of shrewd purchases of radio stations. By the time he retired as an entertainer in the early 1960s, his broadcast holdings had increased to include television. In 1992 he was the only entertainer-turned-businessman listed on the Forbes 400. The same drive and ambition that took him out of small-town Texas and Oklahoma motivated his business dealings. His final decades were spent devoted to a lifelong passion — owner of the American League baseball team the California Angels.

The child of an impoverished family with an absentee father, Gene Autry consistently sought out father figures — including Jimmy Long (co-writer of his first hit), Johnny Marvin (a pop singer who helped him get his first break), and Columbia Records A&R man Art Satherley, a seminal figure in recording history. As Public Cowboy No. 1, Autry became a father figure himself to millions of children. Autry never forgot his early mentors or his loyal employees, providing many of them with lifelong jobs and/or financial aid. He in turn served as mentor to the next generation of artists, encouraging and supporting Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and others who followed. Autry's audiences were black and white, male and female. His most celebrated acolytes range from Ringo Starr to Solomon Burke, Aaron Neville to James Taylor. Taylor told audiences during his 2006 tour that the inspiration behind his first hit, "Sweet Baby James," was to write a cowboy lullaby like the ones he'd heard Gene Autry sing in movies when he was a boy. Taylor's audience, though, was part of a new generation, born in the fifties and sixties, who had found other icons to worship: Elvis, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles — all with their own cowboy dreams. "I was eight years old and wanted to be a cowboy when I saw a Gene Autry movie," Ringo Starr once confessed. "I still do." Instead, Ringo and his peers became harbingers of change.

Public Cowboy No. 1 explores the world of Gene Autry, beginning with his family's nineteenth-century roots until the demise of his reign as an entertainer. The 1960s marked the end of an era — when a generation turned away from decades of infatuation with the cowboy. Public Cowboy No. 1 is also the portrait of a man who had his darker sides, but whose legacy is as Johnny Cash once remembered it: "He made the world look better to me."

Excerpted from Public Cowboy No.1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, by Holly George-Warren. Copyright 2007 by Holly George-Warren. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press Inc.

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